Street Children in Latin America
6:19 pm

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool

Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbench)

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what representations they are making to the governments of Latin American countries about the plight of street children.

My Lords, I thank all those who are going to participate in this evening's debate about the plight of the street children in Latin America. While we were in another place, the noble Baroness, Lady Golding, who is unable to be here tonight, and I, were the two founding chairman of the All-Party Group on Street Children. Other supporters of the group, including the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, and my noble friend Lord Hylton are also unable to be present this evening, but wish to be associated with the concerns that will be expressed today.

I thank, in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Astor, and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, who will be speaking from the Opposition Front Benches, and the noble Baroness particularly for the role that she plays as the very active joint chairman of the All-Party Group on Street Children. The noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, has also been an assiduous and committed member of that group. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, will bring to the debate all his distinguished diplomatic experience but he will also bring some very important personal insights into the issue, through the outstanding work of his wife, who has raised large sums of money for the care and support of street children in Latin America, and his son's work, which I have seen in Sao Paulo.

The noble Lord, Lord Brennan, brings his considerable experience of Latin America but in addition he comes to our debate as one of the country's foremost human rights lawyers. We also look forward to hearing from the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, who will reply for the Government. I am indebted to him for being here today and for the interest that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office takes in these questions.

I have been seeking to raise this question since early in 2004, when I visited some of the favelas in Rio, Sao Paulo and Recife, in Brazil. I went on behalf of Jubilee Action, a charity that emerged from Jubilee Campaign, which I helped to found 20 years ago. My report following that visit is published on the charity's website. Jubilee Campaign is the secretariat of the All-Party Group on Street Children. I particularly commend the work of its administrator, Mr Wilfred Wong, the human rights lawyer.

In the autumn of 2004, following the publication of that report, colleagues from both Houses joined me in the Jubilee Room for the launch of a website, www.stopkillingchildren.com, which was simultaneously launched here and on Capitol Hill. The site details the fatalities which occur on a daily basis. In Brazil alone, it is estimated that between four and five children are killed each and every single day. I shall speak today about Brazil, but I know that other noble Lords will refer to the situation elsewhere, especially in countries such as Guatemala and Honduras.

Since we launched the website, more than 600 cases have been listed. In Brazil, between four and five new cases are uncovered daily. I shall give some illustrations just from the past few weeks. On 14 June, a two year-old boy was shot dead near his home in the district of Manilha, in the municipality of Itaborai. On 10 June, a 14 year-old boy was shot dead with a .38 calibre pistol in the neighbourhood of Alto da Bela Vista, in the municipality of Cabo de Santo Agostinho, in the Pernambuco state. According to witnesses, three men shot the teenager and ran away on foot.

On 9 June, a 12 year-old boy was found in a thicket in the neighbourhood of Pirineu, in the municipality of Varzea Grande. Reportedly, the victim was tortured, hanged and had his arms cut off. On 31 May, a 15 year-old male was shot dead at daybreak in front of a snack bar in the neighbourhood of Jardim Umuarama, in the city of Cuiaba. On 27 May, a 10 year-old boy was found dead; on 20 May, a nine year-old girl was raped and strangled; on 9 May, a six month-old girl was raped and killed; on 6 May, an eight month-old boy was beaten to death; on 2 April, a three year-old boy was raped and killed—and the list goes on and on.

It stands as a rebuke to all the authorities that permit those crimes to occur, but it should also be a stimulus to us to take more decisive action. In the light of the cases that I have mentioned, and others that are referred to in my report, an American congressional committee will take evidence on the issue later this year. I particularly commend the work being undertaken by Congressmen Trent Franks, Chris Smith and Joe Pitts and that of Senator Sam Brownback. I hope that the UK will use similar opportunities to exert pressure for more effective measures to be taken to stop this haemorrhaging of young lives.

It was in the 1990s that the world woke up to the horrifying reports of children being routinely shot dead on the streets of Brazil. Many had assumed that those days had been consigned to the pages of history. But as graphically illustrated by the cases on the website to which I referred, and by the film, "City of God", the carnage continues. It flourishes in a climate of fear, silence and official collusion. I began my own visit in Rio at the church of Our Lady of Candelaria, where in July 1993 six police officers opened fire on a group of street children, some as young as 11 years of age, who were sleeping in the doorways opposite the church. Today a small cross with the names of the boys who died has been erected in front of that church. But these are not historic events.

As experts from Brazil's National Movement of Street Children say, some four or five adolescents are murdered daily, every 12 minutes a child is beaten, 4.5 million children under five are working and some 500,000 children are engaged in domestic labour. In 40 per cent of those crimes, the children are victims. The massive proliferation of small arms is a central cause. One of the movement's activists told me:

"It is easier for a child to get a gun than to get a bus pass".

Since Jubilee Action published my report, as part of an amnesty the authorities in Rio have started to offer cash sums for small arms handed into them. That is a welcome but nevertheless small start.

Alongside the greater accessibility to guns, what has changed since the 1990s and has deepened the crisis is the emergence of a ruinous drugs culture. Formerly Brazil was simply a transit country for the notorious producers of Columbia, Bolivia and Peru, but today Brazil ranks only after the USA as the second biggest consumer of cocaine. In Rio's 680 favelas, where about 25 per cent of the 12 million people live, that has led to the emergence of no-go areas controlled by rival gangs, such as Red Command and Third Command, which organise and arm the children. Children as young as four have guns and are used as "little planes"—to use the local colloquialism and the jargon of the street—trafficking drugs and messages between sellers and buyers. Although there has been no formal declaration of war, the children are caught up in escalating violence. They are child soldiers by any other name.

One young Englishman, Luke Dowdney, who received the MBE from Her Majesty the Queen last year, has undertaken some remarkable work in the favelas. In his book, Children of the Drug Trade: a Case Study of Children in Organised Armed Violence in Rio de Janeiro, he says that a child's chance of dying there is,

"eight to nine times greater than in the Middle East".

Although time will not permit me to describe the details of my report, I raised these matters with the authorities in Brazil. I must say that at state and city level, as distinct from governmental level, I found a great deal of complacency and unwillingness to recognise the reality of the situation. For instance, when I raised the issue with the deputy mayor of Rio, he said that the fundamental issues were "too sensitive" and that there was little point in talking to the military police, because those talks were not fruitful.

Elsewhere in Brazil, the story is much the same. In Recife, an area called Santo Amaro, which is situated on the edge of the city, has one of the biggest favelas, and some of the worst violence in the city takes place there. In two years, 16 young people were shot or died as a result of either non-payment to pushers or from overdoses. The youngest urchin was just 10 years old. One of the workers in Santo Amaro had seen his three brothers killed, and one young woman whom I met had seen her brother gunned down.

I was particularly moved to hear the tragic story of one of the mothers, who helps at the centre and who has now organised a women's movement there to combat the violence. She said:

"While the killers are free, it is society that is in prison".

In that small community alone, 80 people had been killed in just two years, including her own son, whose death was a result of mistaken identity. It was thought that he was involved in the drugs trade.

Elsewhere in Recife is an area known as "Little Hell". We heard the appalling story of one young woman who became a prostitute and was taken there by four men. They gang-raped her, and when they had finished they killed her, gouged out her eyes, ripped out her heart and threw her like detritus into the sea.

People from another leading agency told me of 15 killings in one town, Jabuatao, on the Sunday before we met them. They said that the authorities would claim that the children died at a dance, or some such pretext, but that they knew that,

"it was assassination. 99 per cent of these crimes are never judged because investigators simply refuse to come out to the favelas".

Brazil craves to be recognised as Latin America's leading nation; it says that it would like to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. But if it cannot comply with basic treaty undertakings—it ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, for instance—let alone enforce its own model legislation on child protection, its reputation will be seriously compromised. The representative of one agency said to me:

"The law says the child is a privileged person: the reality is that he is the prisoner".

At the heart of the problem is a climate of fear and an unwillingness to speak out for fear of revenge. In Sao Paulo, Waldenia Paulino, a children's commissioner, denounced police officers who had accosted a courting couple, raped the girl and then shot her boyfriend. Faced with death threats, Paulino had to seek sanctuary outside the country.

Shining a light on this darkness has become a near impossibility. When a brave journalist, Tim Lopez, who worked for Global Television Network, broadcast a report, he quickly disappeared, was tortured and then shot dead. Groups such as the National Movement for Street Children are extremely wary of documenting cases or providing data; that is understandable, because one member who gave an American journalist information about child killings was found dead the following day. One child protection agency told me that nobody is brought to justice and that,

"The whole system is contaminated".

It is hard for a European to comprehend fully how little value is attached to the sanctity of human life in the drug-running favelas in Brazil, yet I saw countless examples of Brazilians and others who have plunged themselves into practical projects to offer relief and help to children in the favelas and on the street. I was inspired by projects in the heart of areas where violence is all-pervasive. In Rio, for example, the Sao Martinho shelters, including those visited by the late Princess Diana and by John Major and Cherie Booth QC, are a superb example of love in action. They are financially supported by Jubilee Action.

However, the men and women who give themselves tirelessly to these projects rightly insist that as well as addressing the symptoms, there needs to be a radical and concerted attack on the causes. These children are Brazil's future and without them Brazil has no future. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise their plight this evening.

6:31 pm
Photo of Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen (Labour)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for instigating this debate and sincerely congratulate him on the hard and constant work that he undertakes on behalf of street children.

On 10 December 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On that day, I became eight years old. I was a wanted, loved, happy and lucky little girl, far, far removed from too many little girls and boys in Latin America today. In the UN declaration there are articles that should be very relevant to young children in Latin America. Article 5 states:

"No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".

Article 25(2) states:

"Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection".

And Article 26 states:

"Everyone has the right to education . . . Elementary education shall be compulsory".

Those were laudable aims in 1948 and remain so today, but for the street children of Latin America they are merely words on a piece of paper. Their aims are a million miles away from these children's daily existence of fear, pain, brutality and degradation.

Reading through the latest UN report, it is obvious that the UN is still working to improve the lives of all children, including street children. The report has a section on street children. It states:

"The sexual abuse, exploitation and deaths of street children in Central America are widespread and increasing, despite its countries having ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that every year many thousands of births go unregistered. Without a birth certificate, families and individuals cannot access health, welfare or education services, and thereby become more vulnerable".

The UN is currently looking at the system of registration of children's births and deaths and is providing funds to help improve this.

One example given of the horrors that street children face is given in the report, and it is of Honduras. Since January 1998, more than 1,350 children and youths have been murdered. There is a suspicion that organised death squads with links to the security services could be responsible. The government of Honduras are setting up a special unit to investigate these deaths which will work closely with the NGA Casa Alianza in Central America and with other human rights organisations to tackle street crime and investigate unsolved deaths. I understand that the UK embassy in Honduras is monitoring the progress of this work.

I turn now to some of the street children I have seen on recent visits to different countries. They include three young boys, about 12 years old, high as kites having sniffed glue, and this at 10 o'clock in the morning. They live permanently on the streets. They include a tiny girl, about five years old, playing a tiny battered fiddle while an older boy watched over her begging for money. And most distressing, they include a girl of about 12 trying to sell her body to tourists, watched over again by an older boy.

The latter was in Brazil, a country with which I have had a love affair for years, since I studied Latin American politics as a mature student at Essex University in the 1970s. Brazil is a very large country, apparently 27 times as large as France—a statistic given to me in my university days. It ranges from the modern capital city of Brasilia through the carnivals of Rio to the wonders of the Amazon. The Brazilian economy is among the world's 10 largest, but it has one of the most unequal patterns of wealth distribution in the world. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has illustrated, sadly, there are numerous accounts of street children being killed in Brazil, and in many of these murders the police have been implicated. Too often, violence to street children is accepted—they are nuisances like rats or cockroaches and can be exterminated accordingly.

Street children are often affected—caught up in—the widespread sexual exploitation of Brazilian children. Trafficking of women and children is rife in the Amazon basin of Brazil. Young girls are forced or deceived into becoming prostitutes and are "owned" by those who run bars and brothels. In an article dated 21 June 1993, Time magazine estimated that 25,000 girls have been forced into prostitution in remote mining villages in the Brazilian Amazon, and sometimes these girls are bought direct from their families.

I had a glimpse of what is happening in this region myself while on holiday in the Amazon basin in 2003. The cruise ship on which we were travelling called in at Santarem, where I saw the young girl I mentioned earlier. A cruise ship arriving in a port in Brazil is a major event. The tourists are fair game in a small town with one paved main street, a large Catholic church and little else except mud streets with water running down each side and hundreds of hammocks for sale from breach stalls. The young girl was beautiful, as Brazilian children tend to be—black curls, olive skin, large dark eyes. She stood in a small square near to the largest of the open-air cafes and her pimp, a young man who looked in his late teens, stood nearby. She approached a number of men who were alone. To my knowledge she did not find a customer, but I am sure that she would find many at other times and on other days. Indeed her life may well depend on it.

I had been expecting her appearance or the appearance of someone like her, because I knew that Santarem is one of the ports where child prostitution is rife and where instances of children being bought, or kidnapped, is commonplace. Additionally, I had talked about child prostitution in Brazil with members of the ship's crew who went there regularly and they knew of this prolific trade and of the bars and areas where young prostitutes were most likely to be found in the various ports of call. This child may not have been literally a street child—I do not know—but she was certainly in need of help and protection.

The Brazilian Amazon is one of the world's wondrous places. The use of this magnificent river for travelling purposes, just as we use our roads, is fascinating, and the warm welcome given by the Brazilian people was heartening. But it is a region with a great deal of poverty. Most of those living by the river live in simple one-room huts on stilts. In winter, when the Amazon overflows, the people and the animals live together in the one room until the water subsides. These people are poor, very poor. It is little wonder that any means of raising money is considered, and too often children's bodies mean money.

It is thousands of miles away from the capital city and the national government, but the Brazilian Government are well aware of the problem and have introduced measures to try to tackle it. However, the country is gigantic and the task enormous.

I understand that President Lula is continuing the work in that area which President Cardoso began, with the establishment of a special secretariat for human rights that reports directly to the president. He is also working with the UN on this matter. The Brazilian Government's efforts are supported, I understand, by our Government, who are funding a number of projects aimed at tackling human rights issues. I would welcome the latest news from my noble friend the Minister on that assistance in his reply.

Finally, I started and I finish with reference to the United Nations, whose role here is crucial. The UN should be the forum where such matters are discussed and where pressure is brought to bear and help is given to countries that have signed up to the UN convention. I understand that Brazil did so in 1990; but how much has happened in real terms since then?

The Brazilian Government need every possible assistance in their efforts to tackle the immense problems that they face and to end the suffering and violation of the human rights of their children, especially their street children.

6:40 pm
Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick

Lord Hannay of Chiswick (Crossbench)

My Lords, the Unstarred Question on the Order Paper from my noble friend Lord Alton is particularly timely. Amidst all the rush of events that we discuss, we should not neglect the plight of the children of Latin America, which is a continuing reproach to the conscience of the international community. It is a reminder that while governments may negotiate and sign documents as worthy in their aspirations as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the noble Baroness has just referred, signed as long ago as 1990, what really matters is the way in which they implement their commitments. That lags far behind.

I am no expert on the detailed situation of children throughout Latin America, but as a result of an interest that I declare—that one of my sons has set up and runs an activity centre for 500 to 600 children in one of the most deprived parts of Sao Paulo in Brazil and also the work that my wife does to raise funds to support that organisation—I do have some direct knowledge of the challenges that children face in that country and of the need to prevent children gravitating towards the streets in the first place as well as the need to come to their assistance when they do so.

The present administration of President Lula in Brazil has introduced a number of programmes that have somewhat improved the situation, but it still falls a long way short of what is needed, and such improvements as have been made remain extremely precarious. I am sure that it is right, and indeed necessary, that where the performance by governments in Latin America falls short of the international obligations into which they have freely entered, we should take those matters up with them and press the case for better policies and better performance. We should work closely with other European Union governments when we do so and expand the role that human rights play in the European Union's emerging common foreign and security policy.

But we should take care when we make those representations to avoid a hectoring and didactic tone. We should remember that our own record on the treatment of children over the years has not been without blemish and that the social and economic problems that confront those governments in providing better support and protection for children are real ones that cannot be made to disappear overnight. Above all, if we are to criticise, we need at the same time to offer effective assistance. On that matter, I ask the Minister when he replies to give us some chapter and verse about DfID's programmes for dealing with the problems of street children in Latin America, our recent performance in that respect, and the plans for the future.

Some time ago, when it was decided to reduce, and in some cases to remove, aid to what are called "middle income countries", concerns were expressed in this House about the impact on programmes for children in Latin America. Certain assurances were given that those programmes would not be negatively affected. I would like to hear how those assurances have been carried through. In truth, concepts such as middle income countries are statistical categories that bear little relation to conditions on the ground. I assure the Minister that if he visited some of the most deprived areas of Sao Paulo he would not think that he was in a middle income country. As we rightly devote great attention to the problems of Africa and what we can do to meet them, we must not forget those realities and the children of Latin America.

I am often struck by the huge amount of goodwill and willingness to help among individuals and voluntary organisations in this country towards those who are less fortunately placed than ourselves. We saw that particularly at the time of the tsunami. It must not be limited to times of great crisis such as occurred then. Help to street children in Latin America needs to be professionally organised and directed if it is to be effective and welcome. What help, what information, what advice and what training will the Government give to assist the voluntary sector and to ensure that its efforts are well-directed and focused?

I would not like to end this brief intervention without paying tribute to our Consul-General in Sao Paulo who, amidst his many duties, finds the time to support the work that my son is carrying out. That is a great encouragement. I hope that this evening we will hear a bit more about the wider picture and what the Government are planning to do in the months and years ahead to face up to this most serious and most moving problem of our times.

6:46 pm
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Lord Brennan (Labour)

My Lords, in the first week of the recent war in Iraq, a 20 year-old soldier was killed. He was from California; he died in the service of the American nation; and he was a street child from Guatemala. He left his hostel; obtained education; wanted to join the army; and suffered that fate. That story tells us three things about street children: first, that they are human beings; secondly, that they can achieve progress with help; and, thirdly, that with that progress they can live and sometimes die the way we do in our ordinary society.

I have the humble privilege of being the president of the Consortium for Street Children in this country. It embraces 37 charities and NGOs which serve to care for and work for the progress of street children in the widest sense of the phrase all over the world, but particularly in South America. Who are street children? There is the stereotype. Are they helpless children? Are they dangerous criminals? Are they heroic survivors? The answer probably is, "A mix of all three and more besides". They are homeless; they may or may not have families. They may live on the street all the time, or some of the time. They may live in shelters, or hospitals, or sometimes prisons for adults.

How many are there in Latin America? The most conservative estimates put it at 8 million to 10 million. Should we do something about it? Who could gainsay the question? Of course we should. We should do something about it because it is our duty as a civilised country to do so ourselves and to help other countries with the problem to solve it. The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires states to support and enable families and communities to fulfil their role of caring for and nurturing children. If they cannot, Article 20 says:

"A child, temporarily or permanently deprived of his or her family environment . . . shall be entitled to special protection and assistance provided by the State".

That is the explicit requirement of Latin American states; it is the spiritual requirement of us as a friendly nation.

What can we do? There are three pressing problems: violence and justice; sexual abuse and exploitation leading in many cases to HIV-AIDS; and, not to be forgotten, natural disasters. Let us take them in turn, dealing first with violence and the need for justice.

It would be an unnerving surprise for us to note that the adult with whom a street child was most likely to come into contact in Latin America was a policeman, would it not? The policeman may beat, harass or sexually abuse them or shoot them dead—or in some cases be decent to them. That is the first step for progress. The Consortium for Street Children has produced an international manual for police training to do with street children, partly funded by the Foreign Office, for which we are extremely grateful. It applies all over the world and is in practice in a pilot project in Ethiopia and Bangladesh. We want to start a similar project in Guatemala this year, with funding. I invite the Minister to help in that regard. With a change in attitude by the police, you have a change in attitude to represent society.

The second point is justice. The state of Honduras was taken to the Inter-American Commission and Court on Human Rights by Casa Alianza for locking up children of eight and 10 in adult prisons. The court condemned it. We must make sure that such practices do not happen. The consortium has a programme for juvenile justice all over the world, saying that we must treat the children with dignity and fairness. Violence is the keynote of such children's lives—suffering it and trying to avoid it. We must help.

Another major problem is HIV/AIDS. When you are homeless—in the sense of familiarly homeless—and become promiscuous or are abused, the risk of HIV/AIDS is enormous. The children do not have a clinic to go to, a doctor to advise or a nurse to care. Nobody looks after them. The crime—I emphasise "crime"—of a sexually exploited boy or girl getting HIV/AIDS and being left by society to suffer it and die is unforgivable. I invite my noble friend to confirm that, in any programme for HIV/AIDS in Latin America to which we are a party or not, we will ask for a special report on what is being done for those children. We must also ask countries to stop sexual exploitation. It is disgusting—an outrage—and it has to stop.

The last point is natural disasters. South America is a large continent given to major events—earthquakes, floods, hurricanes—where poor people can be bereft overnight of everything in their family life. In Honduras after 1998's Hurricane Mitch, the street children population of the capital increased within a week by 10 per cent, because no one could look after them. They were orphaned or abandoned. I invite my noble friend to mark that fact and accept that, after natural disasters, in future we will ask that money be specially directed at avoiding the problem.

I have isolated three areas, but there are many more. Latin American countries stand to be criticised where appropriate but, generally speaking, they stand to be supported. The charities and NGOs from our country depend on foreign governments and systems in which to function properly. I have no doubt that my noble friend will want every ambassador, consul and embassy official in Latin America to try at least once a year or every few months to visit a street children programme. The humility that it will instil will inspire endeavour, and that is what we want. There should be daily representations if necessary.

I shall finish with a question to Members of the House. To be alone, not to be cared for or cared about, and to live a life without hope would present to any one of us a terrible prospect, yet what prospect does it present to a child? All who speak in the debate rightly speak on behalf of our country in asking our Government to act. We are a decent nation with decent principles. We must expect our Government on our behalf to require, by representations to the governments of Latin America, help for street children.

6:56 pm
Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer (Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, one thing that has struck me throughout the debate is not only the knowledge of previous speakers, but the extreme passion with which they have all spoken. I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing the debate. Curiously, I am also grateful that the debate has come so much later than when he first tabled the Question, as the intervening months have given me a chance to visit projects in both Mexico and Ecuador.

I am particularly struck by the fact that it is today that Sylvia Reyes, the director of Juconi—I have visited its project in Ecuador on a number of occasions, including this year—is going to Buckingham Palace to collect her well earned MBE for all her work. That work is not only in Ecuador, but in training in Juconi's way of working throughout the world, including recently in Afghanistan. I would like to talk a little more about that later.

I should also briefly declare an interest as an honorary board member of that organisation and, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, generously said, as joint chair of the All-Party Group on Street Children. While mentioning that all-party group, I should pay tribute to its secretary, Wilfred Wong, who is assiduous in enabling us to write to ambassadors when appropriate to express our opinion about children being murdered in Latin American countries.

I want to go back to some points made by noble Lords. Perhaps one of the main points of the debate was made eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, when he talked about shining a light on this darkness. That is probably our main ability—to shine a light on the darkness of what is happening. We can ask ambassadors of countries to come in, as the Honduran ambassador did last year, and talk frankly to us about the problems, as he did. He accepted that Honduras had a great problem, and acknowledged the fact that the court and police systems there had a great deal to do. As noble Lords have rightly said, it is also our job to keep the pressure on governments to make sure that the police and court systems in their countries know that we intend to shine a light on that darkness, and that they cannot get away with killings unnoticed. That is the first step in dealing with some of these horrendous issues.

Our second difficulty was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. Latin American countries are referred to as middle-income countries. I was equally struck by what I saw in Guayaquil. Once you have left the nicely-developed Malacon area and you get to the outer reaches it is nothing like a middle-income country. It certainly is as deprived as any country that you care to go to. Indeed, 80 per cent of the population of Ecuador live below the poverty line.

Equally, when we visited Pueblo, about 60 miles from Mexico City, with Juconi and the IPU delegation last year, you were given the impression that you were not in a middle-income country, once you had left the city centre—Mexico is much wealthier than many of the countries that noble Lords have mentioned. However, Brazil and Mexico are often referred to as the "twin hubs" that will lead Latin America forward. We should look to them for some of the leads regarding how to deal with the issues that, perhaps, have concerned me more. That is the side that I have seen, as opposed to the more horrendous issues that noble Lords have been talking about.

There is another side to street child life, which concerns those street children who often do have homes. They are not homeless, will not be subject to attacks by the police and may work occasionally in the market or on the streets, cleaning windscreens or selling flowers. Equally, they have little hope of breaking out of the cycle of poverty, because the education system in their countries is not in any way, shape or form, geared to enable a street child to go to school.

I was particularly struck by the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson of Market Rasen, on the importance of having a birth certificate, an identity, as a first step to enabling some of those rights to education and health to be realised. Without those rights it is difficult, even for the child who is not exposed to violence and who is not locked up in prison, to make many steps forward in life.

That is why I wish to return to the work of Juconi, because it works with the family as a whole when the child still lives at home. Juconi will identify the child as being on the street. Sometimes that child is there due to violence or abuse at home. Sometimes they are on the street simply because of the sheer poverty at home and they need to go out and earn some money to take home. Juconi goes into those homes and works with the child with the permission of the child and, sometimes, the willing participation of the adults—although that is not always the case.

Sometimes that participation is somewhat unwilling to begin with and it is slow and painstaking work that Juconi carries out. But its idea is to mainstream that child back to the facilities that the two countries that it works in, Mexico and Ecuador, can offer. Both counties do offer a level of education. Indeed, if the children can access it and if Juconi can bring their levels of literacy and numeracy up to a point where they can reasonably enter school, they can return to mainstream education or enter it for the first time. It is a measure of the success of that project that a year ago its first child graduated from university. That is an achievement indeed.

So that type of work, which is not dramatic, is extremely important. It is equally imperative that, in shining the light, the countries in which that work takes place choose to recognise the importance of such work and highlight that there is hope and a future if people choose to send their children to school. That may be combined with working in the markets because, realistically, it is not possible for all of those children suddenly to leave their work which brings in income for the families. However, they should, at least, have a space to work at home—whether it is a shelf to the side of the bed, or whatever; and space is often at a premium. Homework and so on should be encouraged, so that they can take a step forward.

I met a young reporter called Daniel Postini while I was in Ecuador. He was a photographer for the Expreso newspaper in Guayaquil. It was his mission in life to bring to the fore what it was like to live in some of the shanty towns that surround Guayaquil and what might be done to take a step forward. He was there to photograph the children who were displaying their works of art at an exhibition. In talking to him and the children, I was struck by the fact that the children were similar to any other children. Their artwork was exciting, but the subjects were similar to what might be seen in England—for example, "My birthday party", "My trip to see granny in the country". The difference was quite heart-rending, when it was explained to me that, mostly, their artwork was actually dreams of what they desired.

But for some of them, their dreams were about attending school and having a school uniform. That can be realised. I look forward to hearing the Minister say what contributions DfID can make and the difference that the ambassadors in the two countries that I visited have made—Denise Holt in Mexico and Richard Lewington in Ecuador—to encouraging the work of NGOs and the governments of those countries and furthering the mainstreaming of all children into education. That would be a major step forward.

7:07 pm
Photo of Lord Astor of Hever

Lord Astor of Hever (Spokespersons In the Lords, Foreign Affairs, Spokespersons In the Lords, Defence, Spokespersons In the Lords, International Development, Deputy Chief Whip, Whips; Conservative)

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this important debate and on giving the House the opportunity to discuss the plight of street children in Latin America. It has been a most interesting and informed discussion, one that follows on well from the more general debate on developments in Latin America, led by my noble friend Lady Hooper on 26 May.

As my noble friend Lady Rawlings stated in that debate, with Her Majesty's Government's focus on the problems of Africa, it is all too easy to forget that there are problems that are just as serious and urgent in other parts of the world. It is essential that this House keeps a spotlight on these other areas, especially when there are more people in Asia and South America who subsist on less than a dollar a day than there are in Africa.

It is clear from the debate on 26 May that, despite the unrest that we have witnessed in Bolivia and the continual problems of internal armed conflict in countries such as Columbia, Mexico and Brazil are, as the BBC once put it, "gentle giants awakening". They are areas where political stability is working hand in hand with a growing economy, enabling both countries to look outwards and to help anchor the continent as a whole. Let us hope that that remains the case after Mexico's presidential elections next year.

So, some steps, if faltering, are being taken by the member countries of Latin America. However, these nations will not develop the international respect to which they aspire without addressing the shocking human rights violations that are carried out in their societies. The plight of the street children has been passionately demonstrated by your Lordships. It is clear that, while Brazil is the most cited example of a country's failure to address its commitments to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is not by any means the only one. Guatemala and Honduras, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned, are examples, too.

Although Brazil has failed to produce 13 reports under the six core United Nations human rights treaties, 226 reports are overdue from various other nations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Being forced to produce the reports, those nations are compelled to look at the issues and to address the failings of their systems. I wonder whether Her Majesty's Government are taking any steps to help to address the issue.

The sharp contrast of wealth distribution is visually brought home by the sight of shanty towns next to the air-conditioned homes of the elite, particularly in the otherwise beautiful city of Rio de Janeiro. In Brazil there are an estimated 25 million deprived children and around 8 million of them live on the streets.

As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has highlighted, the proliferation of drugs and small arms means that around four to five children and adolescents are murdered in Brazil every day. In Guatemala City alone, there are, on average, two violent murders of children a day and last year there was a total of 847. The Honduran Government have officially recorded 1,030 children under 18 killed since 1998, although NGOs report a figure closer to 2,500.

It appears that few have been held accountable and brought to justice for those deaths. Despite moves toward a more civil society, the apparent impunity with which perpetrators of such crimes operate—they are often police or security officers—shows a distressing lack of political will and transparency to deal with the issue seriously.

The horrors of the figures that I have just mentioned exclude those who die from sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS following enforced prostitution, a subject mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, and the noble Lord, Lord Brennan. In Brazil's two biggest cities there are an estimated 150,000 child prostitutes, boys and girls as young as eight years old, controlled by strong organised mafia.

Will the Minister inform the House what advice and resources the Government have supplied to the Latin American countries to help to train specialised police units to investigate sex offences against children? What anti-corruption support are they providing to help to hold to account police officers and politicians involved in such despicable schemes?

Corporate social responsibility is an important approach in helping to tackle this distressing issue from afar. Will the Minister inform the House of any government-led or sponsored trade missions run by the British Council or any other organisations to raise the issue with companies in Latin American countries? What steps are Her Majesty's Government taking to ensure that they have no dealings with companies and organisations which are known to profit from the use of drugs? What pressure are the Government putting on respective governments to assess the gun ownership and illegal trade in small arms within their countries?

What response has Her Majesty's Government taken in response to the Jubilee campaign's call for public information campaigns to promote understanding and sympathy for the situation of street children in Latin American countries? Many NGOs provide street children with the necessary shelter from violence and sexual exploitation. They provide food, clothing, medical treatment and, most importantly, general educational and training programmes to help to get them off the street.

I was most impressed by the description given by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, of the wonderful work that his consortium is doing there. I want to reinforce the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, about the pledges of DfID in this area and how they have been carried out.

Finally, I hope that the Minister will confirm that during the G8 summit some time will be made to discuss vital needs of the poverty stricken street children of Latin America. After all, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, rightly said, this issue is a continual reproach to the conscience of the international community.

7:15 pm
Photo of Lord Triesman

Lord Triesman (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office; Labour)

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for giving us the opportunity to discuss the plight of street children in Latin America. Again, he has demonstrated, as he so often does, his considerable personal knowledge. That knowledge has been of great benefit to the House and I thank him for it. I am also grateful to all noble Lords who contributed to the debate. We have had a good deal of sharing of knowledge and compassion but knowledge and compassion are plainly not enough.

As the Minister with responsibilities for Latin America, I am encouraged to see the interest in that region in this House. We have had two debates in a very short period—within a month—which I welcome. I say to the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Astor, that of course Africa is vital to the G8 discussions for all the reasons of which we are aware, but that will not distract us from Latin America and these issues. These issues do not go away because we have that concern.

In general, the rights of children worldwide are a central part of our human rights policy. I stress that that is the Government's position. As my noble friend Lord Brennan reminds us, it is also our responsibility, as a civilised people in a civilised society, through charities, government and all parts of our society, to realise that we have obligations and ethical responsibilities. During the debate, my noble friend and others illustrated the values that underpin that, for which I thank them.

Poverty, unemployment and social dislocation leave many children with no option other than to leave home. On the streets they are often excluded from accessing key services such as health and education and they lack the support that most of us assume we shall have in life of kinship and social networks. Many suffer and are at greater risk from organised violence, trafficking, sexual exploitation, enforced prostitution and HIV/AIDS. In addition, poor police training—in some places I suspect there is no police training—low salaries and weak judiciaries can exacerbate the problems. It is the underlying causes of deprivation and exclusion, as well as the requirement for police and judicial reform, that need to be tackled if there is to be a serious long-term solution.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor, was right to say that the growing economies of the continent are fundamental if they are to make progress at all. Yet there is so much more to do because so much is going wrong. Reports are required from many countries. In response to one point raised, we try to monitor against the criteria set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, because that is the most widely ratified of all the core human rights treaties and because monitoring is needed as implementation is so patchy.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child considers implementation of the convention. We have supported training for NGOs—this is a direct response to the point raised by the noble Lord—to improve the quality of all shadow reporting to the committee. That means that the committee receives fuller pictures, year-by-year, of the situation on the ground in any state party. That includes, in our case, work done with the NGOs in Belize, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Trinidad and Tobago and, of course, Brazil, which is at least making efforts to be up to date in its reporting.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked us what we are doing. The Government see a broad agenda that we must tackle when we approach the plight of street children in the region. That can be pursued both in lobbying and influencing and in direct support to project work.

I turn first to poverty. I should like say a little about the exceptional work that my colleagues in DfID are doing. Our contributions to multilateral institutions for work in Latin America amount to about £100 million a year. An annual bilateral programme of £11 million will complement that by helping the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank to improve their ability to tackle poverty, inequality and inclusion in their programmes. It also supports efforts to improve donor harmonisation and the effectiveness of government poverty reduction strategies to include social exclusion and child poverty. Our contributions to the European Commission, rightly emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, are also assisting them to implement a social cohesion programme in Latin America.

We also recognise the important role of civil society, which has been demonstrated so clearly by all noble Lords speaking in the debate. We also support that. On the lobbying front, I can assure the House that we have made clear to the governments of Latin America, bilaterally and with our EU partners—in our presidency of the EU, given my responsibilities, I will certainly continue to do so—the importance we attach to respect for human rights and, at the heart of those, the rights of children. Together with our European partners, we continue to call for all states parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child to implement their reporting obligations.

I was pleased that my noble friend Lady Gibson drew attention to the convention and our responsibilities to the UN. After all, that is a cornerstone. The UN is still working on those issues—and still failing, I suppose, with regret, I must say; but still working. We closely monitor progress. In some areas progress is being made in countries in the region where there is concern, including in Central America and Brazil.

Perhaps I could talk about a few countries to illustrate the point. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, talked about the Jubilee campaign and illustrated it with Brazil, and other noble Lords mentioned Brazil. The noble Lord described a harrowing, terrifying list—a catalogue—of degradation and lack of value attached to children's lives. In the article to which he referred, which I read with interest—actually, interest is too pallid a word; it is a moving article—he made the point that in the absence of gravestones the website provides the only documentary evidence of the children's lives that have been lost, of children's deaths. He is right to ensure that these issues are not forgotten.

My noble friend Lady Gibson was right to say that the Brazilian Government recognise the scale of the problem, but it is below governmental level where there is evidently much work to be done. According to the latest report of Brazil to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, major problems exist in the realisation of children's rights. Those are the effects of, inter alia, unequal social structure, the growing incidence of early pregnancy and child labour.

There are also a number of positive developments; for example, a decrease in infant mortality and a significant expansion of primary school education. Brazil has introduced a number of programmes, such as the Family Grant, the Zero Hunger Programme and the Programme for the Eradication of Child Labour. However, all of that does not remove the problem, which was so powerfully illustrated by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, when he described the work of members of his family and the NGO work that is essential.

We engage frequently with the Brazilian Government on all those issues, both bilaterally and through the European Union, on a broad range of human rights issues, including about the situation of street children. The Government have funded a number of projects in the human rights field in Brazil, including tackling some of the more pressing problems of violence in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.

A priority area for projects in 2005–06 is the promotion of child rights in that context. Our embassy in Brasilia is currently in discussion with the Brazilian Government on how they can assist in developing a training programme to build vital capacity among the Brazilian judiciary in the areas of juvenile justice and young offenders. That infrastructure is plainly vital, as this debate has illustrated.

In Ecuador, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred, unofficial statistics suggest that there are 1 million working children there, of whom 5,000 are street children or at social risk. For several years, our Embassy in Ecuador has assisted JUCONI—the Junto Con Ninos—which is one of the main NGOs working in this area. Incidentally, the Mexican embassy is engaged in a similar way in Mexico. As the noble Baroness said, JUCONI's main challenge is to get street children—in many cases the family breadwinners—back into education, by providing family support and encouragement. It was really good to hear that the first of those children has got to university. That is surely lighting a light in that country. I congratulate the noble Baroness on her work there.

In Central America, we have raised concerns about issues in those countries. Our embassies maintain close contact with the region's governments, non-governmental organisations dealing with child protection, and other members of civil society. We regularly voice our concerns bilaterally and, as I said, with our EU partners. The problem in Central America is plainly made much worse by youth gangs, the Maras, as they are called, which are responsible for violence and increasing crime throughout the area. Young people and children, frequently from broken homes, may join those gangs when they are very young—as was said, they are almost a child army—sometimes when they are no more than 10 or 11 years old, to try to gain a sense of community and personal protection.

Studies have shown that young people are often desperate to leave the gangs but reintegration into the mainstream of society is difficult, especially for those with visible tattoos. It has been almost impossible for them. With no prospects of employment, many young people remain locked into the vicious cycle of crime and drug dependency that inevitably brings them into conflict with the law.

We have provided support for many local projects in Central America to help protect children and fund equipment as well as to support training for local police forces across the region. DfID has also supported government programmes to strengthen social services, improve conditions and protect vulnerable children. That is a significant part of DfID's programmes across the continent.

My noble friend Lady Gibson also drew attention to Honduras, which has been particularly affected by gang violence. Examples of work that we have supported there include assistance in setting up a government special investigative unit for deaths of minors and a community policing project on children in conflict in conjunction with Save the Children. We have also funded a study by the Children's Legal Centre at Essex University, with which my noble friend will be familiar, to investigate the juvenile justice system. The final report of that study, which is being undertaken by a very good group of academics there, will be launched in September 2005 at a regional conference on children in conflict with the law and will guide future legislation in this important area.

During 2004, DfID gave Honduras £1 million to support its poverty reduction strategy, including the analysis of child poverty and the plight of street children. The strategy commits the government to reduce child labour, improve the quality and equity of education and improve child health coverage. Our embassy is monitoring that.

In Guatemala, where we understand from Casa Alianza that in Guatemala City alone there are some 4,500 street children, we have funded the research and publishing of a manual to train the local police force in child rights and child protection, with particular focus on street children. This work was carried out with the NGO, Consortium for Street Children. We have funded Casa Alianza's work to refurbish a home for former street children and a shelter for sexually abused children with the human rights ombudsman office.

As I briefly summarise those national examples, I feel compelled to admit that training of police forces and the judiciary are very important steps into which we should put resources. That will not stop wicked people from being wicked, I fear, but it is a means of ensuring that we intervene as purposefully as possible in those areas.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, we are working hard on voluntary-sector training to boost its excellent efforts as much as possible. DfID and the FCO work substantially with the local NGOs in programme delivery—largely because they are the best placed organisations to deliver those programmes—and to help to build their capacities. Examples include Casa Alianza, in Central America; ChildHope International, in Brazil; and projects in Venezuela and elsewhere. There is a long list, which I shall not go through, but it is serious.

In response to my noble friend Lord Brennan, the Guatemala project is also deeply involved with the local NGOs in training the local police in child rights. It is another area where that specific problem is being addressed.

Most of the reports that we have heard today are truly shocking. It is sad to have to admit that there are no quick fixes or magic solutions. The noble Lord, Lord Astor, raised some of the central problems about small arms. Although it is no quick fix, my right honourable friend in another place Jack Straw is promoting the international small arms treaty in an attempt to get some control of those issues. As I said earlier, the underlying causes are the deeper issues of poverty, inequality, social exclusion and, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, rightly says, the acute problem of drugs and drugs trafficking.

If I quote Nelson Mandela accurately, those are all blights caused by human beings. Of course, natural disasters are not blights made by human beings but they add to and compound the misery of what we do to ourselves as human beings. We have real ethical obligations in that regard.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor, asked what we would do about corruption in companies and governments. At the G8 summit the issue of anti-corruption and good governance in governments is fundamental to the whole package concerning debt write-off and aid. Our own legislation is fundamental to dealing with and penalising corruption. As I have said, we are working in all those spheres to assist Latin America in that broad agenda and trying to tackle the more specific issues related to street children. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, can rest assured that we will pursue that role with our partners in Europe during our European presidency and beyond.

I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, that I will seek to ensure that our HIV/AIDS programmes include special reports on the position of children. I will discuss that both in my own department and with DfID. I will also discuss visits to street children. As I am sure noble Lords know, many visits already occur, but I will ask what the programmes are, as I am as keen to know the answer to that question as I know the noble Lord is.

Governments in the region recognise the root causes of the problem, and some are making progress. We will continue to encourage and assist them to make more progress. We must go beyond knowledge and compassion to make progress. We will only let ourselves down if we do not do that.