Rio’s street children raise grave concerns over rights abuses in run up to Olympics

(Credit: Ciara Long)

RIO DE JANEIRO — “The Olympics have not brought anything good to Rio”, said Mariana*, who is about to witness her city host its second major sporting event in the past three years.

“Police repression of poor people has increased and they are rounding up all the homeless people – adults and children – as if they are dogs,” she continued. “They are locking them in a kind of kennel and they will only be let out once the Olympics are over.”

At 17 years old, Mariana is one of many former street children to have been subject to ‘street cleaning’ operations, where Rio’s municipal government removed street-connected youths from their communities. According to a report from international children’s rights organization Terre des Hommes, this process was intensified before the 2014 FIFA World Cup when individuals were placed in juvenile detention centers where they suffered further abuses.

“I was informed that there I would get a proper education, so that I wouldn’t get engaged in any wrongdoings,” Mariana explained. “Instead, I was beaten up and abused.”

Such occurrences prior to mega-sporting events are not exclusive to Brazil. Before the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, Durban implemented similar street cleaning practices that disregarded street children’s rights and housing rights.

(Credit: Ciara Long)

Participants chant campaign slogan ‘I am somebody’ outside the Copacabana Palace Hotel, Rio, on March 18. (Credit: Ciara Long)

In response to the increased risks faced by street children in the run up to mega-sporting events, Terre des Hommes and Street Child United launched a campaign to ensure that future host cities place the rights of children at the center of their bids. The campaign began with a week-long Olympic Street Child Games in Rio de Janeiro, where Mariana represented her country alongside 32 other former street children in the finals on March 20.

During the week, street-connected children drafted an open letter to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), available for members of the public to petition IOC President Thomas Bach. The letter, presented at the Games Congress on March 18, asks the IOC to “make a clear, public human rights commitment” and to pressure the “local government to halt human rights violations” in Rio de Janeiro before the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Former street children also created the ‘Rio Resolution,’ seeking to remind countries of their commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Resolution demands that Rio’s municipal government recognizes street children’s rights to education, legal identity and freedom from violence regardless of their personal circumstances.

Speaking at the Congress, Fabio Garcia Paes, vice president of the Brazilian body responsible for producing legislation on children’s rights, said that creating policies with adequate accountability had been problematic for the National Council for the Rights of Children and Adolescents (Conanda).

“More than 25 organizations have reported that children in Rio de Janeiro would be abused by police, would be taken out of the streets, led to institutions where they suffer abuse,” said Garcia Paes. “What is the legacy that we are going to have in terms of the Olympic Games?”

But NGOs insist that governmental bodies are not the only ones who bear responsibility for children’s rights before mega-sporting events. Andrea Florence, Terre des Hommes’ strategic alliance officer, said that corporations responsible for mega-sporting events must also take responsibility for the rights of street-connected youths and that more should be done to elevate their marginalized voices.

“Children’s’ voices aren’t heard because they’re not grown-ups,” Florence told Humanosphere. “They’re not invited to debate the issues, but they see and understand all these changes and have to deal with them without people asking for their perspectives.”

Andrew Mitchell, the IOC’s media relations manager, said in an email to Humanosphere that host cities “commit themselves” to fully applying the principles of the Olympic Charter, including the most recently added principle complying with the U.N.’s Declaration of Human Rights.

“The IOC remains strongly committed to protecting human rights in all Games-related activities and has in place all the necessary tools to deal with any alleged violation that is brought to our attention,” said Mitchell in the email.

Rodrigo Torres, alternate director for the Ministry of the Promotion of Children and Adolescent Rights, described the difficulties around creating an effective bureaucratic system to ensure that children’s rights are fully upheld in Brazil.

“In general, the laws in place in this country to guarantee [children’s] rights are good,” Torres said in an interview with Humanosphere. “To coordinate municipal responsibility with state, executive, legislative and judiciary responsibility is a challenge, but it would not be fair for one of these to have full responsibility for any issue.

“It is important that there are institutions coordinated to guarantee the provision of the law.”

*NGO has requested use of a complete pseudonym.

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About Author

Ciara Long

Ciara is a journalist currently based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, covering human rights, urban development and favela culture. You can follow her Twitter feed on @CiaraLong5.