Hellhole in Manila

Horror stories keep piling up about the Manila shelter for street kids that's been described as run like a "concentration camp". That's a loaded, incendiary phrase that should not be bandied about lightly, conjuring as it does the particular horror of the Holocaust in World War II. But perhaps welfare observers who've been to the Manila Reception and Action Centre (RAC) could be forgiven for employing the word to describe the appalling conditions they found at the centre. The picture they enclosed in the third letter they sent to the Manila City Hall powerfully buttresses their charge.

The photo is of a naked boy named "Frederico" lying on a cold concrete floor, and it is a truly heart-rending image-a shockingly emaciated frame, ribs and bones protruding, skin covered in rashes. Catherine Scerri, deputy director of Bahay Tuluyan, a nongovernment organisation advocating children's rights, said she took the photo on October 12 during a visit to the centre. The boy, said to have been found abandoned in Paco and brought to the shelter on March 8, also had a black eye. Staff members of the centre apparently made no effort to find out who the boy was; his real name, age and address remained unknown right up to his transfer to another youth centre seven months later. As to why he was left in such a miserable state, the staff said the centre lacked funds for medical treatment.

This is a grossly outrageous oversight on the part of the Manila's social welfare department (MSWD). The RAC, established about 30 years ago, is directly operated by the department as a shelter for children and minors abandoned on the streets-beggars, vagrants, loiterers. "It is supposed to rehabilitate streetchildren but it is not a child-friendly place," said Scerri.

Bahay Tuluyan has called the attention of the Manila city government thrice-the latest in a letter to Mayor Joseph Estrada and MSWD chief Shiela Marie Lacuna-Pangan appealing for authorities to step in to improve conditions at the shelter, and enclosing the photo of Frederico to illustrate its concerns.

Conditions at the RAC are hellish for its young wards. Made up of a cluster of buildings built in the 1930s, the centre is designed to accommodate only 100 people but is now said to be crammed with about 400 kids. "Recently I saw about 160 boys sharing a room just about five-by-six metres wide," said Scerri. "They have nothing in there but a bucket-for those who need to pee."

The overcrowding, the lack of resources and apparently absent government oversight of the place contribute to a host of other problems: the kids' poor health and nutrition; widespread cases of bullying and abuse ("Many children we have spoken to complained that they were physically abused, assaulted and even tortured by the RAC staff," wrote Bahay Tuluyan executive director Lily Flordelis in its third letter to Estrada); and the generally negligent, indifferent tack of administrators toward their crucial task of caring for hapless kids.

According to a follow-up report in this newspaper, one of the street children was even beaten to death in mid-2013 by other wards-but even more shockingly, the incident did not result in any investigation or sanction against anyone. No RAC staff was made to account for the death of a boy that was supposed to be under their care and protection.

What was Estrada's reaction to the ghastly reports about the misery and maltreatment going on in a youth rehabilitation centre funded and operated by his administration? Only nonchalance and a lack of urgency. Estrada was quoted as saying that he had "reprimanded the head of the MSWD and RAC for this… They said they did not mean to neglect the child (Frederico) and that this is an isolated case. I have ordered the MSWD to improve the treatment of children there. This won't be repeated. If it happens again, heads will roll."

"Reprimanded"? "If it happens again"? The criminal neglect in the centre that has led to the death of a boy and the starvation of another one to a state that has evoked comparisons to concentration-camp conditions requires more than a perfunctory reprimand. If heads should roll, it should have happened long ago, when the Manila city government's attention was first called to the alarming case of institutional child abuse in its midst.

It should happen now-because its uncaring administrators should be made to account for the hellhole into which the youth shelter has degenerated. For the city government to shrug its shoulders is to be complicit in this atrocity.