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Tears for Cameroon’s Stateless Street Children

Police in the seaport town of Limbe, Wednesday, April 15, 2020,  arrested hordes of street children who were hawking and making brisk business.

Limbe, popularly known as OPEC city, because it hosts the lone petroleum refinery in the country, bears a reputation as a city of commercial possibilities.

The operation followed an order by the Senior Divisional Officer for Fako Division Engamba Ledeux, prohibiting children from being used as street hawkers.

Cameroon is struggling with curtailing the ravaging coronavirus pandemic in the country and fears that allowing child-street hawkers would likely inflame the spread of the disease.

As of the morning of Thursday, April 16, hundreds of children whose parents  had not reported at the police stations to bail were still being detained by the police.

Parents who came for their children were routinely detained as their children regained freedom. The parents, however, had to negotiate their own freedom in monetary values.

Some of the parents have been released after paying sums negotiated with the police and those who have not paid are being held.

The offence for which the children were arrested in the first place is not provided for in the penal code and so there is no penalty for it, thus the money paid by parents goes to the police.

HumAngle found out, however, that most of the children still in police detention are children fleeing war in the crisis-torn Anglophone region where schools have been shut for long.

Their parents may not likely be anywhere near or even alive. They are the homeless children whose parents either escaped into the bushes, are casualties of the military invasion of the Anglophone Cameroon or fled to neighbouring Nigeria.

Among these street children are also those from the Far North Region, one of the theatres of insurgency by Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin.

There are also, among the street children, those from the Eastern region of the country where refugees and armed gangs from the Central African Republic have wreaked havoc on the population.

The Ministry of Social Affairs in Cameroon classified these ones from the Eastern region as “legally non-existent” children. It is a way of saying that such street children have no state and no root.

Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital has over 10,000 “legally non-existent” children. These are children aged 13 years and above who have no birth certificates or any other state identification documents.

According to a study commissioned by Rotary International, “these are children who exist, but legally have no real existence.”

This phenomenon does not only exist in the economic capital but throughout the country.

An investigation carried out in the Far North Region of Cameroon by a non-governmental organisation known as Association of Competences for a Better Life (ACBF) found that more than 50 per cent of children born in that part of Cameroon have no legal existence.

A source in the association told HumAngle that while at work in communities in the Far North region they discovered that most families in the region do not bother to obtain birth certificates for their children after birth.

“The phenomenon of children without a legal existence is nationwide. Parents are only forced into giving a legal existence to their children when they go to register them in school and are asked for a birth certificate.

The problem in the three northern regions is accentuated because of the low percentage of school attendance in these regions”, an ACBF source revealed.

Most of the children too have no birth certificates because they have been detached from their parents who have fled from their homes because of the Boko Haram insurgency in that part of the country.

HumAngle investigation reveal that poverty and the complicated procedure involved in acquiring a birth certificate turns off parents who would otherwise want a legal existence for their children.

To be able to get a birth certificate one has to first declare the age of the child in court and even after acquiring the age declaration, under-the-counter-deals by officials in the civil status registries make the price of a birth certificate beyond the reach of so many ordinary Cameroonian families.

The whole process of acquiring a birth certificate costs above 10,000FCFA (about US$20).

“What incentive has a family living on less than a dollar a day to cough out 10,000FCFA just to acquire a birth certificate for a child it cannot feed?”, asks legal practitioner Oben Joseph.

The situation in urban centres like Douala is caused by other reasons different from insurgency, ignorance and poverty. HumAngle investigation further found that most of the children without birth certificates in Douala are orphans whose parents died of HIV-AIDS.

The Regional Delegation of Social Affairs for Littoral says besides the orphans, there are also children who were conceived through adultery and whose mothers are adolescents who did not want the pregnancies in the first place.

Sociologist Kombey Wolete attributes the high rate of criminality in urban centres to some of these children without a legal existence who have been abandoned to themselves and who live in the streets because they have no homes.

“Unable to go to school or being employed because they have no legal identity, most of these children resort to crime and drugs. The path to a better future for any child is through a legal existence”, the sociologist says.

He estimates that over two million children in Cameroon today have no legal existence and that means that they are not going to school and constitute a non-negligible pool from which criminal gangs harvest their accomplices and future gang membership.

“To curb a future exponential proliferation in criminality, it would be advisable for the government to document the street children in our urban areas and give them a legal existence.

This drive should also be extended to the rural areas where most parents are always not in a hurry to make birth certificates for their children because of the costs involved,” Kombey Wolete advised.

That over two million children in Cameroon have no legal existence means that the population figures of the country cannot be a genuine approximation of the national population.

“How can a country plan development and the provision of social amenities when it does not know the number of people for which the amenities are intended?”, the sociologist queried.

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Chief Bisong Etahoben

Chief Bisong Etahoben is a Cameroonian investigative journalist and traditional ruler. He writes for international media and has participated in several transnational investigations. Etahoben won the first-ever Cameroon Investigative Journalist Award in 1992. He serves as a member of a number of international investigative journalism professional bodies including the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR). He is HumAngle's Francophone and Central Africa editor.

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