A seven-year-old boy stares nervously through the bars of the detention centre in Manila. Then, as charity workers gently explain to him that he is being taken to a children's home in the countryside, his face breaks out into a broad grin.

"Will there be toys there?" he asks.

Mak-Mak is among the few lucky ones. Put behind bars last month as part of a campaign to clear street children from the part of the Philippine capital to be visited by Pope Francis, Mak-Mak's nightmare is over, although it may take a long time to rid himself of the demons the nightmare brought with it.

With dozens of other children, he spent Christmas and New Year locked up in a concrete pen next to one holding convicted adult criminals in the grotesquely named House of Hope, where many children are brutalised and abused.

In recent weeks, hundreds of children have been rounded up from shop door-ways and roadsides by police and officials and put behind bars to make the city more presentable during Pope Francis' five-day visit, which began on Thursday. In a blatant violation of the country's child-protection laws, the terrified youngsters are locked up in filthy detention centres, where they sleep on concrete floors and where many are beaten or abused by older or adult prisoners and, in some cases, starved.

A few minutes' drive from some of the 17 detention centres that hold Manila's street children, an estimated six million people will on Sunday attend an open-air mass conducted by Pope Francis in Rizal Park, watched by a global television audience. City officials appear determined to ensure the urchins - normally a ubiquitous sight in the poverty-racked city - are nowhere to be seen, at least along the routes where the pope's cavalcade will travel. One has openly admitted there has been a major round-up to ensure street children are not encountered by the pontiff.

I have gained rare access to the House of Hope with Nobel Peace Prize-nominated Irish missionary Father Shay Cullen, 71, who, with pre-arranged paperwork at the ready, secures the release of Mak-Mak and another boy, aged 11 - their cases having been highlighted by social workers - before taking them to his Preda Foundation shelter for children, 160km away, in Subic Bay.

The House of Hope is set amid the slums of Manila's Paranaque district. Guiltless children are kept behind bars, made to go to the toilet in buckets and fed leftovers, which they eat from the floor. If past round-ups are any guide, some will be held for months before being freed.

Adult convicts are kept in a pen next to compounds holding boys and girls separately and freely enter the children's enclosures at certain times of the day, inmates and regular visitors to the centre tell us. Officials either ignore or fail to see any abuse.

"Lots of children have been brought here lately," says Paulo, 42, an inmate. "We're told they're being picked up from under the road bridges where the pope will travel."

AS CHARITY WORKERS drive Mak-Mak to his new home, an exasperated Father Shay says, "This boy is only about seven years old and he is behind bars. This is completely beneath human dignity and the rights of all the children here are being violated. There is no education. There is no entertainment. There is no proper human development. There is nowhere to eat and they sleep on a concrete floor. There is no proper judicial process.

"These kids are totally without protection. They have no legal representation. They are just put in jail and left to fend for themselves."

Pope Francis famously washed the feet of inmates in a youth detention centre in Rome, in 2013, but Father Shay, who has run his mission in the Philippines for 40 years, says, "Sadly, there is no way the pope will be visiting these detention centres in Manila.

"They are a shame on the nation. Officials here would be horrified at the prospect of the pope seeing children treated in this way."

In a local newspaper interview, Rosalinda Orobia, head of the Social Welfare Department in Manila's central Pasay district, confirmed officials had for weeks been detaining street children as young as five in the areas the pope will visit. She claimed the operations were aimed at stopping begging syndicates targeting the pope rather than tidying up the city.

"[The syndicates] know the pope cares about poor kids, and they will take advantage of that," she told the Manila Standard.

In a commentary, the newspaper slammed the campaign, saying, "We all understand the natural tendency to put one's best foot forward when guests come calling, but hiding away poor street children completely misses the point of the pope's apostolic exhortation to hear the cry of the poor.

"We should all be scandalised by the government's artificial campaign to keep the streets free of poor children only for the duration of the papal visit, with no cogent plan to keep them in schools or their homes, where they belong, and to instil discipline among their parents, who should know better."

The editorial concluded: "There is no question that children should be kept off the streets, but a campaign to do so just for the duration of a dignitary's visit helps nobody except the officials who want to put on a show and pretend that all is well in our cities."

The practice of locking up street children ahead of major international events in Manila dates back to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Leaders' Summit of 1996, says Catherine Scerri, deputy director of street children charity Bahay Tuluyan.

"There has been a pattern of this happening before big international events. It happened before [United States President Barack] Obama's visit to the Philippines in April last year," says the Australian, who has worked for 11 years to improve the lives of Manila's legions of street children. "When we tried to have them released we were told they couldn't come out until after Obama had gone and the children were very much given the impression that they were 'rescued' because of this visit."

A survey of street children by Bahay Tuluyan has found that the so-called rescues are indiscriminate, targeting youngsters who have committed no offences and do not want to go to detention centres. Children are taken in simply for sleeping on the street, for begging or for stealing food to relieve their hunger, with no proper judicial process and - rather than "rescued" - exposed to abuse.

"There is no reason the shelters should be like this and what I find soul-destroying is the apathy of the people who work in and around places like the RAC [the notorious Manila Reception and Action Centre] and allow this brutality," says Scerri. "I can understand a lack of resources, but what I find so frustrating is the violence, torture and apathy, and the fact that people are standing by and letting this happen. I think that is completely inexcusable.

"The RAC and other institutions call these children recidivists even though they have committed no crimes," she says. "One child of 13 we interviewed had been rescued 59 times and was back on the street."

Few people in Manila know how children are treated in the detention centres. "When people find out, they are outraged," says Scerri. "They are horrified to find out what the government is doing in their name."

Anger erupted in the Philippines in October, when the picture of a skeletal 11-year-old lying on the ground at the RAC, apparently near death, was published. The boy, who shares the pope's Christian name, Francisco, is now recovering at a children's home run by a charity but protests over his case have failed to halt round-ups or improve conditions at Philippine detention centres, where an estimated 20,000 children are held each year.

In an article written for a Catholic publication as the controversy over Francisco's case spread, Father Shay described the emaciated child as an innocent at the gates of hell and called the RAC a "house of horrors" and "a place of the living dead": "It was his protruding rib cage that shocked most of all. Each rib could be clearly counted. There was no discernible breathing but one could not know from looking at his starved naked body," he wrote. "He was close to the last stage of a painful death, it seemed.

"Government employees of this place seemed indifferent to the suffering child of Lazarus that lay sprawled at the foot of an institutional wall. Who could look on that emaciated, severely malnourished body of a child for a moment and not feel a pang of compassion and be shocked at his horrid state?

"Here was a human person with the dignity, value and importance as a Filipino child of God, endowed with rights and needs, left to die as if he were nothing more than a bag of bones."

Describing what he saw on his own visits to the RAC, where many of the children at the Preda Foundation were saved from, Father Shay says mentally disabled children at the centre are treated particularly harshly.

"The children clustered around the wooden bars and cried to be let out and begged me to help them go home to their parents. There was no therapeutic, educational or entertainment programme for the children," he wrote.

"There were no toys, comics, games or staff to conduct activities with them. The food is very basic and monotonous. There is no playground equipment to be seen or sports and games facilities. These children … are doomed to a life of ignorance without meaning and purpose."

Away from the horrors of the RAC, social workers and child psychologists help rehabilitate street children at the Preda Foundation homes in lush countryside near Subic Bay. In an interview conducted by a trained child psychologist, a boy called Ben describes how, last year - aged six - he was abandoned by his mother and then picked up by police as he slept on the street. He woke to find himself in a police cell and then spent three months at the House of Hope, where he was sexually abused by 10 inmates.

"I was very unhappy there," he says, quietly.

Mak-Mak - who was abandoned by his parents and has never before been outside the city - is wide-eyed with wonder at the sight of a cow in a field as he leaves the slums of Manila behind him. As soon as he arrives at the children's home, he leaps out of the charity's van and sprints across a lawn to a rusty set of swings and a roundabout. After playing happily with other boys for two hours, however, he becomes tearful and withdrawn when questioned gently by the child psychologist about his ordeal.

"There's an awful lot of trauma there," says Father Shay.

Charities working with street children have been praying Pope Francis will speak out on children's rights during his visit to the Philippines, pricking the conscience of church leaders and officials in the devout country and pressing them to take more care of their unfortunate young. The pope has spoken out at an inter-faith conference on the need to make all forms of slavery a crime against humanity and Father Shay says he is impressed by the agenda the pontiff appears to be setting for the church.

"I am calling on the church hierarchy to take a stand and speak out for the child victims," says Father Shay. "They need to have real compassion and understanding and confront the government on this moral issue. We see human suffering every day and they should stand with us and support us."

In the meantime, the only prospect of an escape from the gates of hell for the vulnerable children still caged in Manila's brutal detention centres will come after the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church - shielded from their suffering - flies back to Rome, on Monday.

 

How Filipino teen escaped girlie bar with priest's help

The pretty teenager's face darkens to a scowl when I ask her what she thinks of the middle-aged foreigner accused of having had sex with her.

"I feel great anger and hatred towards him," she says. "He is a bad person. I want to eradicate all the bars in that area so no one else goes through what I went through."

Glean was 16 years old when Arthur Benjamin, the 49-year-old Texan owner of Crow Bar, where she worked, allegedly had intercourse with her, taking her virginity. Benjamin was arrested in a raid on the bar, in response to reports of sex for sale by underage girls, by United States and Filipino police. The raid was filmed by a television crew from American news channel ABC.

Glean says she was forced by a relative to begin working at Crow Bar at the age of 14.

"I was very afraid," she says. "I was a child and I was surrounded by adults. Benjamin had sex with me and I was frightened. I wanted it to stop."

Two years on, Crow Bar and other seedy girlie bars along the same strip in Barrio Barretto, Subic Bay, have shut down. Benjamin remains in custody as hearings into his case continue and Glean is periodically summoned to testify against him.

Known as Princess when she worked in the bar, Glean now lives and works as a child-care assistant at the nearby headquarters of Father Shay Cullen's Preda Foundation, which helped organise the raid.

As well as rescuing street children from jails and detention centres, Father Shay's foundation campaigns tirelessly against child prostitution and the trafficking of women. The operation filmed by ABC and by an Australian TV crew is one of its most high-profile successes.

Father Shay - whose charity is based in Upper Kalaklan, Olongapo City, just 3km from the sleazy Barrio Barretto area, where hundreds of young girls work in sex bars and clubs - accuses the Philippine government of aiding and abetting the problem by doing nothing to stop sex tourists.

"We are not judgmental about people who come here and walk around the sex bars," he says. "If there are free women who are not in debt bondage and women and men choose a consensual relationship, that is not our concern. Our concern is for those who are not free and who are victimised and who are held in debt bondage in these bars and clubs."

Knowing the difference between a free woman and one in debt bondage or an underage prostitute can be challenging, however, as many use forged certificates or documents from older sisters that say they are at least 18 years old, the legal age of consent in the Philippines.

The Preda Foundation's aim is to have the girlie bars closed down but Father Shay admits the situation has become worse, not better, as the internet, cheaper international travel and drugs such as Viagra bring more sex tourists to the country.

"The thing that keeps me going is saving as many children as we can," says Father Shay. "We can see the children are happy, coming back from a hellhole of despair, and coming alive. That lifts our spirits. We see success in every child."

Father Shay's 40-year campaign has brought him into conflict with many foreign bar owners in the area.

"I would respectfully disagree with Father Shay that the country is a magnet for paedophiles," says David Fischer, owner of the Wet Spot and other establishments in Barrio Barretto. "It is no more a magnet than any other poor country. If he wants to eradicate that, though, it's a noble goal but it is an uphill battle.

"I think where Father Shay does the right thing, he does the right thing really well. His campaigns to protect children, women, indigenous populations, all of these things are really good and he is to be commended on his activities in that area.

"The bars are just another segment of business life and as long as they are subscribing to the rules and the governments that control their operations, I think there's nothing wrong with them. Nobody is forced to work in a bar here, nobody is conscripted. They don't have debt servitude. Everyone is free to move from any location to another any time they want."

For Glean, however, escaping from Crow Bar was a liberation.

"I was shocked when the bar was raided but I was very happy to get away," she says. "Now my life is so different."

When the court case involving the man she says cast a shadow over her teenage years is over, she plans to move on.

"I want to continue with my studies and become a social worker," she says. "I want to help other girls who are in the same situation I was in."

Simon Parry

Text: Red Door News Hong Kong

More information about the missions to help street children in Manila by the Preda Foundation and Bahay Tuluyan is available at www.preda.org and www.bahaytuluyan.org.

 

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