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Vietnam Accused of Detaining Street Children During Summit

A U.S.-based human rights group says Vietnamese authorities are taking homeless children off the streets of Hanoi in the run-up to international events such as this week's Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and putting them in detention centers, where they are mistreated. But other agencies dispute the Human Rights Watch claims, saying the government's policies towards Vietnam's street kids are not all bad.

Hanoi shoeshine boy Ba left his home in Vietnam's impoverished Phu Tho province two years ago to find work in the capital. He earns two dollars a day cleaning shoes, sometimes working inside a Hanoi bia hoi, or beer garden, and sometimes walking the streets looking for customers.

But right now, Ba is staying inside the beer garden. He is afraid that if he tries to find work on the street, he will be arrested.

As Hanoi prepares for this week's Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which will be attended by the leaders of 21 countries, police have been rounding up homeless kids in an effort to clean up the city.

Ba says when his friends have been arrested, they have been held in what's called a Social Protection Center named Dong Dzau outside Hanoi. They are held for 15 days for a first offense, and three months for a second offense.

Human Rights Watch has issued a report on Vietnam's street children called "Children of the Dust", which is based on three years of research. The report says conditions at the Dong Dzau center are terrible - detainees are beaten by guards, refused medical treatment, and given inadequate food.

Human Rights Watch also says the roundups of street children intensify around international events like the APEC summit.

The organization says that conditions at another Social Protection Center near Hanoi, named Ba Vi, are better, but that both camps violate Vietnam's obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Vietnamese government denies the allegations. Nguyen Thanh Chau, the deputy head of the APEC Secretariat says it is not true that Vietnam is sweeping street children up and taking them out of the city. He says Vietnam is trying to protect children's right to an education by sending them back to their families in the countryside.

Some of those who work with Vietnam's street children say the situation is not clear-cut and that Human Rights Watch and the government are both right. Those workers say the government is trying to send street kids back to their families, but the policy is misguided and results in abuse.

Bui Quang Minh is the senior program officer at the children's development organization, PLAN International, in Hanoi. He says the government sees the rounding up of the street kids as part of an attempt to guarantee the children's rights.

"According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, they are not allowed to work on the streets," Minh explained. "I think that the main purpose is protecting them, but the way of protecting them may be not so appropriate."

The Human Rights Watch report says trying to return street children to their homes is futile. They tend to come from impoverished areas, and usually return immediately to the city, to try to earn money on the streets.

Other approaches are more promising. PLAN cooperates with the Vietnamese government to provide centers for migrant children and families in Hanoi, where they can get schooling and health care.

These children are on their way to school at the "May 19 Warm Shelter" in Hanoi. Some are with their families, migrants who lack residence permits for Hanoi. Others are here alone, and work selling gum on the street.

The children say they are unable to work during APEC. The teachers at the center have signed a pledge to keep the children off the street for the duration of the summit.

But, shoeshine boy Ba says he is happy the APEC summit is being held in Hanoi.

Ba says he is making more money lately, because most of his competitors have either gone home to their villages or been arrested.