When crime is the best of many bad options
There are street children in almost every country in the world. In Bangladesh, their number is particularly high. The Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) estimates that there are 1.5 million street children across the country and that their number is set to rise substantially.
According to the UNICEF definition, the term includes youth up to the age of 17.
Bangladesh’s police and aid agencies have published similar statistics. The issue is of particular concern in Dhaka. Of the16 million people who live in the capital city, 10 million dwell in slums or on the streets. Many of them are children. Urbanisation exacerbates the problems: millions of people migrate from rural areas into the city to find work. Bangladesh’s street children live in abject poverty, either on the streets or in makeshift homes in slums. They have no chance to claim their rights, they struggle to access education, and they are marginalised from mainstream society.
Street children often have to work. In Bangladesh, some do so within the lower echelons of organised crime groups. Organised crime is prevalent in Dhaka. The bosses are called “mastaans”, and their groups operate in slums across the country and particularly in the capital. There is very little reliable information on these groups, but research suggests that mastaans control the city’s poor areas. Slum dwellers’ access to basic services depends on paying mastaans inflated prices for housing, gas, electricity and water.
In response to the lack of knowledge about organised crime and the involvement of street children, I conducted a three-year in-depth study in Dhaka. It included participant observation, which I did within the criminal justice system. Moreover, I conducted 80 interviews with adult practitioners and did a year-long embedded case study with a group of 22 street children. Because of the roles that mastaan groups play in society and the kind of “social protection” they provide, I argue that they are mafia organisations.
As is typical of organised crime, their outfits engage in a variety of crimes including drug dealing, weapons smuggling and trafficking. They also run protection rackets, which many scholars consider to be the distinguishing feature of mafia organisations. The data from my study suggests that mastaan groups operate across the whole country, but mainly in urban areas such as Dhaka. They have distinct hierarchies and manage their members by organising them in street gangs. Street children often become embroiled at the lowest echelons of mastaan groups. They are hired to conduct a variety of heinous crime.
There is a range of reasons why street children become involved in these activities. The most important is that these children are incredibly vulnerable. They live on the streets, often without parental supervision. Most of them must work to survive. Mastaan groups offer them ways to earn money. In doing so, they coerce them into a life of crime. The children involved in my study explained that young people see committing crimes as “work”: a way to support their survival on the streets. One of the children in my study explained further: “There is a boss, a group leader, and there are jobs for people, like you are going to a market and you will steal this thing and you are going to a shop and steal this. The boys steal things and then give what they stole to their boss. This is their job; in this way they earn some money.” The structure of the mastaan groups in hierarchies with bosses and different echelons foster children’s understanding that they are part of a business, albeit a criminal one.
My work demonstrates how street children in Dhaka are hired by mastaans to carry weapons and sell drugs. Children are also hired to collect “tolls” from slum dwellers – for simply living in the area or for accessing basic human services. Land grabbing is another “business” they are involved in. In many slums, land is valuable and land rights are not protected. The fight for land has become a predominant occupation of organised crime groups. Mastaans hire children to occupy an area in a slum to threaten the land owner to give up the property.
Furthermore, street children are hired for political violence and, in some instances, contract killings. A young person involved in this study explained further: ‘You can rent someone to kill someone else for you. You can hire a 10-year-old to kill someone for you! But it goes up, you can hire older children too. The age is not fixed, it’s more dependent on how much you can pay them. But it is possible to just rent someone to kill, actually, it’s really easy’.
A better term
Children involved in mastaan groups are often viewed as innocent victims who are coerced into organised crime as a way to survive. This argument makes sense. However, my work in Dhaka revealed a more complex scenario. Street children actually have some agency over their decisions. They often see involvement with mastaan groups as an easy way to make money and gain a level of social inclusion within the group. The term “victim of exploitation” fails to depict this reality.
Other terms such as “gang member” or “criminal” are just as inadequate however. They fail to indicate the childrens’ acute poverty, need and dependency, which make them join criminal gangs. In my view, these children should be considered “illicit child labourers”. This conceptualisation captures both the kind of work that street children engage in and why they do so.
The big question is what can be done to better protect these young people. Millions of children in Bangladesh – and in many other countries around the world – work in crime groups. They are exploited and abused, but they actively choose this lifestyle. It is the best option they have in desperately difficult circumstances. Not much is known about their plight, so raising awareness for the issue in Bangladesh and wider afield is the first task.
Legislation is another problem. Although there are many laws in place which aim to protect child labourers and children in general, they insufficiently cover the children working for organised crime. The International Labour Organization’s definition of the worst forms of child labour, for example, only mentions drug dealing and trafficking, but it fails to comment on under-age people involved in political violence, extortion or contract killings.
In Bangladesh, a great deal is being done at the grassroots level to protect street children. The new Children’s Act is testament to this, alongside a wealth of initiatives driven by both the government and non-governmental organisations operating in the country. However, children will continue to be exploited and abused at the hands of mastaans and organised crime in general. More expansive, global approaches to the issue must be considered, and pan-Asian understanding should be sought. Children’s involvement in organised crime should be tackled at local, national and international levels. Otherwise, it will not be possible to protect children and to halt the spread of organised crime.
Sally Atkinson-Sheppard is a criminologist, strategist and international consultant. Her thesis on children’s involvement in organised crime in Dhaka earned her a PhD from King’s College, London.
Atkinson-Sheppard, S., 2017: Street children and “Protective Agency”. Exploring young people’s involvement in organised crime in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Childhood. Vol. 24 (3):1-14.
Atkinson-Sheppard, S., 2017: Mastaans and the market for social protection. Exploring Mafia groups in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Asian Journal of Criminology. 1-19 Advance online publication. doi: 10.1007/s11417-017-9246-9.
Atkinson-Sheppard, S., 2016: The gangs of Bangladesh. Exploring organised crime, street gangs and “illicit child labourers” in Dhaka. Criminology and Criminal Justice. Vol. 16(2) 233–249.