The number of street children in Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland, is on the rise as more Ethiopian children cross the border in search of a better life.The immigrant children are adding to the burden of local street children, most of whom have been forced on to the streets by drought and insecurity within Somaliland and further south, in Somalia.“You can see old women accompanying about 20 children, of different ages, crossing the border into Somaliland from Ethiopia. These women may be their grandmothers, aunts or mothers,” Khadar Nour, chairman of the Hargeisa Child Protection Network (HCPN), told IRIN. "The children, who are mainly from the Oromo [region of Ethiopia], beg in the streets of Hargeisa with their mothers," Nour said. Some work as shoe shiners, sending their earnings to relatives in Ethiopia.Hargeisa is also a popular transit point for those seeking to travel further. “About 100 to 200 immigrant children cross the border from Ethiopia into Somaliland [annually] on their way to [the self-declared autonomous region of] Puntland, or to Yemen,” he said.Poverty and family break-ups have also fuelled the rise in numbers. There are about 3,000 children, most of them boys between five and 18, living on Hargeisa's streets.Crime threatWith the rising numbers, officials are concerned about an upsurge in crime. “They [the street children] are becoming a threat to the town's stability,” said Nour.“When they grow up, they still find themselves living in difficult conditions; it is for this reason that they grab mobile phones."Consequently, a number of the children are now in conflict with the law. In August, Nour said, a 16-year-old was sentenced to death in a Berbera regional court after being found guilty of murder. "The grown-up street children have become the new gangsters," Mohamed Ismail Hirsi, Hargeisa's Central Police Station commander, told IRIN."In the last 72 hours, we have arrested more than 30 street children who have committed crimes such as stealing mobile phones in different parts of the town."
In the past two years, some 5,000 knives and other weapons, which are commonly used in robberies, have been recovered from the street children, prompting calls for more focused interventions."People say good words in workshops, but few interventions for street children have been [implemented]," said Nour of HCPN, which recently started providing food and education support for the children.Once arrested, the children are charged as adults because a 2008 juvenile justice law has yet to be implemented.Glue sniffingThe children living rough are turning to drugs. "I use glue because when first I came to the streets I saw my friends sniffing it," Ahmed Omar, 12, told IRIN. "Whenever I use it, I am able to survive a difficult situation."The lack of a family support system also means more children may end up on the streets, as Abdi-Qani Ahmed’s experience illustrates. "When my mother and father divorced, there was no one left to take care of me," Ahmed, 11, said. "I used to get my food from restaurants in Hargeisa where I fed on leftovers.”During Ramadan, however, few if any restaurants are open. "I have to wait to see if someone gives me something to eat or not," he said.Living on the streets puts the children at risk of abuse from other street children as well as strangers. For protection, the children often seek refuge outside the police station at night.