The phenomenon of street children is considered to be the most important problem facing children today in both the developed and developing world. Accordingly, this phenomenon needs to be addressed and solved, lest it continue to threaten societies around the world.
Though some variance exists, international organizations and bodies estimate that the global street child population ranges between 100 - 150 million children. The variance in population size is due to a number of factors: first, there is no common definition of "street children" that is endorsed by all the relevant actors; second, national governments often conceal the extent of the phenomenon in their respective countries, in order to avoid potential recrimination for not doing enough to address the issue; and third, the street child population is fluid, with street children travelling from one city to another and frequently not possessing identi.cation papers or birth certifcates.
The phenomenon of street children is predominantly urban. The strong family ties and informal system of social protection upheld in rural areas usually keeps children off the streets, although many street children in the cities have migrated from rural areas to the cities individually or along with their families.
There are a number of major factors that are believed to cause, or exacerbate, the problem of street children. They include:
1. Economic factors
2. Family relations
3. Poor education level of parents
4. Large family size
5. Migration from the villages to the city
6. Wars and natural disasters
In Palestine, as in other locations, the size and extent of the street children phenomenon expands or contracts according to how one defines the problem. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) there are three categories of street children: children inhabiting streets, children working on the streets, and the children of street families.
In order to analyse the extent of this phenomenon in Palestine, a pilot study was conducted in order to identify factors affecting the phenomenon and the characteristics of street children in Palestine. The study focused on investigating a group of children on the streets in different locations throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), including East Jerusalem. The data for the study was gathered through a questionnaire, which was based on a set of indicators and variables corresponding to the objectives of the study.
The study aimed at addressing two main questions:
- Does the phenomenon of street children exist in Palestine?
- Who are the street children and what are their characteristics?
The study targeted 120 children (below 18), including 74 children in the West Bank and 46 children in the Gaza Strip. The sample children were present in the following areas: around Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints located between the different Palestinian towns and cities; near border crossings (e.g. Jericho and Rafah); at traf.c lights; and in or near markets.
The "street children" phenomenon in Palestine manifests itself through the presence of children in the streets for long hours, working, wandering, begging, loitering or playing. However, these children do not sleep on the streets. Their families are known to them, they have homes to go to, and they all maintain some level of relationship with their families.
Based on the .ndings of the survey, it would be very rare to .nd a Palestinian child who had completely severed relations with his/her family. Of the total of 120 children surveyed, only ten children do not sleep regularly in their parents' home. However, this does not indicate that these children sleep on the streets: over half (6) sleep in the houses of their relatives.
As the absence of housing and family ties are two of the main criteria in many of the de.nitions of "street children", the concept that most properly applies to the Palestinian case is "children in the street," rather than "street children."
This being said, however, there are small numbers of children who do meet a strict de.nition of "street children", but the number of these children is insuf.cient to classify it a phenomenon. For example, of the 120 surveyed children, only 4 do not sleep regularly in their family home or with relatives: 1 sleeps in a school, 1 sleeps in a deserted place, and 2 sleep in public places.
One of the key characteristics of children in the street in Palestine is that the majority work. Globally, child labour is believed to be a major issue related to the phenomenon of street children and a crosscutting relationship has been noted, where some street children are working children and some working children are street children. Child labour in Palestine is clearly linked to the poor economic situation brought about, primarily, by Israeli occupation policies. The annual report of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) indicates that economic hardship is the main factor forcing families to send their children to work. According to PCBS, 71% of children in the labour market between the ages of 5 - 17 years work out of economic necessity.
The factors affecting the existence of children in the street in Palestine as well as the factors affecting children while in the street are similar to those affecting children in many parts of the world (e.g. economic issues, dif.culties in the home or with education, etc.) While not all children who qualify as "children in the streets" in Palestine are vulnerable to direct violence and exploitation, it is extremely important that those factors that do expose children to violence and exploitation be addressed as a means of eradicating the phenomenon of children in the street in Palestine.