As Rio de Janeiro prepares to welcome the world’s sports enthusiasts for August’s Summer Olympic Games, human rights activists are warning that Brazilian authorities are “cleaning the streets” of Rio by detaining poor children to keep them out of the sight of tourists.
Rio de Janeiro and its outskirts are home to an estimated thousands of “street children,” many the children of gang members or drug abusers, left to fend for themselves. Police estimate 24,000 street children live nationwide. Many turn to crime, particularly theft, to survive, and a great number become involved in drugs themselves. A report in the International Business Times cites human rights groups working to help these children saying that the number of cases of arbitrary arrests of these children appear to be increasing as the Olympics draw near.
“Many smoke crack or sniff glue. Some live on the streets full time; others spend nights in the favelas, or nearby shantytowns,” the report notes. Advocates for the children say they are increasingly spending their nights in jails. “The government will make a plan — a huge plan for the Olympic games — with the police, with the army, to clean the area, to let no poor person come in, to make sure no child is on the streets, to make everything beautiful,” Daniel Medeiros, an advocate for street children affiliated with the group Happy Child International, tells the International Business Times. The positive image the government of leftist President Dilma Rousseff is selling to the world, he adds, is “just a big lie.”
“Street children” are considered an eyesore as well as a threat. As many live on the streets and have little access to food, they resort to theft and drug smuggling to feed themselves.
Happy Child International typically operates out of Recife and Belo Horizonte, Brazil. While some of its volunteers are working with street children in Rio de Janeiro, the group places much of its resources in Recife to help young children and pregnant teens. Recife is one of the cities hardest hit by the Zika virus, which has caused severe brain deformations in upwards of 4,000 newborns in Brazil alone. Scientists’ most recent estimates suggest that over two billion people worldwide are at risk for contracting Zika, which often does not cause symptoms in its carriers, only to affect unborn children carried by mothers who do not know they have Zika. Zika is transmitted sexually and through the bite of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, common throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Even before Zika became an international news story, Rio de Janeiro’s poor have sternly objected to hosting the Olympics there because it forces the government to divert funds out of essential services to pay for sports facilities. “It’s great for the athletes but it’s worse for my people, for the poor. There’s no doctors, there’s no hospitals, there’s no schools, there’s no teachers, there’s nothing,” Dinara de Almeida, a 17-year-old mother, told Vice earlier this month. Teachers and doctors are hardest hit by the lack of funding for state workers, forced to work unpaid for months or abandon a job necessary for the progress of their city.
The lack of necessary resources for the country’s poor has triggered an especially acute backlash in the context of the sprawling embezzlement scandal known as “Operation Car Wash.” Prosecutors have accused dozens of politicians, including former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, of pocking government funds from the nation’s oil conglomerate, Petrobras. President Rousseff is facing impeachment for misrepresenting the nation’s economy, but many are calling for her resignation due to her support for da Silva, under which she served as Minister of Energy while the Petrobras scheme was ongoing.
Vice notes that some observers argue that bringing large-scale sports events to Brazil has triggered more violence and poverty among street children. According to UNICEF statistics, the number of minors killed doubled between 1993 and 2013, but spiked even more significantly following the 2014 World Cup. Vice also cites statistics showing the increase in police killings began with the year Rio de Janeiro hosted the Pan-American Games in 2007.
The World Cup, unlike the Olympics, spread the burden of hosting throughout the nation, from Rio de Janeiro and Recife to more inland locations like Belo Horizonte and Manaus. The strategy was controversial, with the Manaus venue especially troubling, as the city is located deep in the Amazon Rain Forest and heat and humidity posed a health threat to the athletes.