Ulanbataar – Children’s Underworld

To be childless in the traditional herding society of Mongolia is devastating. Children are treasured, and they help with herding, looking after the young animals. In the mid-nineties, street children were a new phenomenon in Mongolia, especially in the capital. As fallout of the economic crisis precipitated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had hitherto provided major economic and technical assistance to its satellite state, their numbers have since risen to 4,000.

The majority of the children are driven out of school and onto the streets by poverty. They hang out and begin to work the streets, earning money by begging, prostitution, or theft. Children from the countryside have often lost contact with their families, having been handed down to relatives to look after them. Some leave home to escape alcoholism and domestic violence. Family break-ups have risen sharply during the transition from communism. About 80 percent of Ulaanbaatar’s street children come from the capital itself or from provincial cities along the railway corridor.

A number of NGOs and children’s charities have begun looking after these street children with the aim of eventually re-uniting them with their families – if they can be found – and re-integrating them into society and schools.

The government at first thought it best to deny the issue, and so removed the children from the streets and locked them up in prisons and youth detention centers. As the root of the problem is poverty, however, the authorities were eventually forced to shift their stance on the issue. By leaving the covers of Ulaanbaatar’s many manholes unlocked, the government acknowledged that the sewers or heating ducts to which they afford access can serve as life-savers in the world’s coldest capital city, were temperatures regularly drop below -30°C. While the retreats are fetid places with a high risk of tuberculosis, urinary infections, and sexually transmitted diseases, they are at least warm.

The reportage was commissioned and published by Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Zürich, and became part of Travelling through the Eye of History.