Their numbers are shrinking, but sinister jobless adults pose a new threat
ULAN BATOR-On a snowy night with temperatures dipping to a bone-chilling
minus 26 degrees, a manhole cover was pushed open on a street in this
capital city, releasing warm steam. Four teenage boys then climbed out of
They are known as ``manhole children,'' street children who seek warmth from
underground water pipes. They use cardboard boxes as their homes.
They left home for various reasons, including poverty and domestic violence.
Although reports say the number of manhole children has declined in recent
years, new problems have surfaced, including homeless adults driving the
children out of their only shelter in the brutal Mongolian winter or forcing
them to commit crimes.
``Not many grown-ups knew of this location,'' says Sukhbold, a 14-year-old
who gulps down the soup offered by staff members of the Verbist Care Center,
a Catholic child welfare organization. ``But recently, grown-ups have been
coming here and beating up the children or demanding cash from them.''
According to local police, unemployed homeless adults are increasingly
ordering street children to steal money or bring food. The children are
assaulted or thrown out of into the cold if they refuse to obey.
For many of these children, they have nowhere to go.
Sukhbold, for example, says he left his family home three or four years ago
when his stepfather began to physically abuse him. He has been living
underground for about a year, and spends his days collecting empty cans for
change and buying bread with the little money he makes.
Sukhbold and the three other teenage boys say their underground residence
offers them protection from the harsh elements.
The heat from hot-water pipes connected to thermoelectric power plants
produces underground temperatures of at least 20 degrees.
The nation's economic struggles have been particularly harsh on rural areas.
More adults are coming to Ulan Bator seeking work, but they often remain
jobless, and some end up fighting the manhole children for the warmth of the
No one knows the full extent of the problem of homeless adults abusing the
children, partly because the young homeless do not report such cases to the
Badamkhand, a senior inspector with the community policing division of the
Mongolian national police agency, said: ``Homeless adults and children
living in manholes are responsible for about 2 percent of crimes committed
nationwide. About 70 percent of them are thefts.''
Since the nation's democratization in 1990, Mongolia's rapid economic
liberalization has widened the economic gap among its people. The nation's
first non-Communist government, which formed in 1996, implemented drastic
economic reforms that led to serious inflation.
Exacerbating matters, severe snowstorms in 2000 and 2001 devastated the
nation's main industry of nomadic stock breeding, slashing the number of
livestock from 33.6 million in 1999 to 23.9 million in 2002.
Many nomadic people lost their only source of income. And basic necessities
like electricity, water, and medical care have worsened in rural Mongolia
since the days of the Communist government.
Currently, nearly 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, earning
less than 20,000 togrog (about 2,000 yen) a month.
In a country of about 2.6 million, more than 35,000 people are officially
registered as unemployed. But some say up to 175,000 people are actually
without jobs, and many of them are streaming into the nation's capital. In
the past two years, Ulan Bator's population has increased by almost 200,000,
according to official data.
The government has no statistics on how many homeless people are living
underground, but police and child welfare agencies estimate that 50 to 100
children live underground in Ulan Bator.
But thanks mainly to the efforts of the government and foreign aid
organizations, the number of street children has been decreasing and more
aid has been provided.
The Verbist Care Center, the organization that fed Sukhbold and the other
teens, distributes meals for street children once a week.
Mongolian police have set up temporary shelters for homeless children. At
one such shelter, 28 children aged 3 to 17 played in a large room.
An 11-year-old girl came up and introduced herself in Japanese: ``Konichiwa.
Watashi no namae wa Ariungerel desu (Hello, my name is Ariungerel).''
She said she learned Japanese in her elementary school.
Asked how she ended up in this shelter, Ariungerel explained that after her
parents divorced, her father, whom she had been staying with, was sent to
prison. Ariungerel was supposed to have stayed at an aunt's house, but she
ran away because she was bullied there. Police took her in when she was
found wandering the streets.
Mongolian police typically spend two weeks trying to identify these
children, contact their families or find a facility where they can live.
Children like Ariungerel, who need protection from their relatives, are
placed in child welfare institutions like those run by the Verbist Care
About 120 children now live at Verbist Care Center's facility. One resident,
17-year-old high schooler named Amarsanaa, lived as a manhole child for two
years with his sister, who is a year younger.
When his father became an alcoholic, the family fell into heavy debt and
eventually lost their home. Now that Amarsanaa has been taken into the
center with his sister, he has shown he is a bright student who favors math
and computer science.
``I want to go to college, learn economics and be an academic,'' Amarsanaa
To ensure that homeless children do not return to the streets, the police
keep an eye on the children. About 1,150 children are currently being cared
for at about 20 welfare facilities, from where they go to school or receive
Foreign aid agencies donate about 200 million togrog, or about 20 million
yen, every year via a governmental child welfare committee that distributes
the aid to each children's facility, according to an official of the
committee. In addition, foreign nongovernmental organizations offer
financial help directly to facilities in need.
The number of homeless children has decreased over the past years. In 1997,
when divorce cases and unemployment were the highest in the past 10 years,
an estimated 3,700 children were living near underground pipes in Mongolia,
mainly in Ulan Bator. That number fell to 200 in 2001, governmental
officials say, due to the establishment of the protective facilities. The
number of street children now is estimated at between 50 and 100.
But there is little hope for any improvement in the stagnant economy, which
is the root cause of the homeless problem. While the number of children
taken into protective custody has risen, the number of orphans has also shot
up from 3,892 in 1999 to 5,435 in 2004.
``With so many children's facilities, it may look like the problem has been
solved,'' says Javzankhuu, a senior officer at the Mongolian National
Committee for Children. ``But that is not the case. With the shrinking
economy and the continued breakdown of the family, the problem of manhole
children will not go away.