Having recently finished editing a book on child prostitution in Britain, I decided to look at the subject in Marseilles, a French city with a long history of turbulence, on the Mediterranean. In ancient times it was fought over several times by the Greeks and Romans, and currently there are political and cultural tensions that often manifest themselves on the streets. But there is also a romance about the city - it has a large international port with a beautiful mountainous limestone backdrop. Our Lady of La Garde majestically surveys the scene some 500 feet above the city.
At street level life is less romantic. During the day I find people of all ages begging in streets like La Canebi re, the most famous of Marseille's main streets, and even on the steps of the Palais de la Bourse (the old stock exchange).Most of them appear to be Caucasian rather than African. Platoons of heavily armed soldiers are ever present, chaperoned during their patrols by the local gendarmes, and adult women prostitutes take their positions early.
At night I see homeless people sleeping rough and children begging in the metro stations.
At dusk during my third evening in one of the less popular streets I am accosted by a young woman with her begging bowl asking for money. She has with her a very young baby and a three-year-old. All look under-nourished. They remind me of the Bosnian beggars I sometimes see on the London Underground. The three-year-old clasps the sleeve of my jumper and will not let go - we must all four look pathetic! We come to an arrangement and I am "released".
During the afternoon, just off the main street, I see 15 older women prostitutes on a 200-yard stretch of pavement. The location has all the elements of a controlled area, whether patrolled by pimps or others is difficult to determine. Other European cities have discovered that having high numbers of child runaways and an overt sex industry side by side is a dangerous cocktail. When children need to survive local and international sex markets embrace them with relish.
Later in the evening I see young girls operating as prostitutes just a little way from this area. Much later, encouragingly, my cynicism is confronted by the humility of two Marseilles youths who relieve an elderly woman of her heavy bag at the bottom of the 104 entrance steps to St Charles Station. I feel sure they will run off but in fact they merely help her to the top and return the bag.
Find the relevant university library. Recent local figures estimate there are 400 children of 13 to 15 in Marseilles without papers (sans papiers), and with nowhere to stay (Les enfants clandestins de nos rues). I see mostly boys on the street. Algerians, Moroccans, Kurds and Poles. They seem to congregate in the main meeting places including the parks, where they spend much time pursuing the latest roller-skating craze - the skates with one row of wheels - on undulating surfaces, including the hand rails of steps.
We know from research that the factors that cause young people to run away need to be very strong to overcome their awareness of the risks they face.
Seek out some local projects that are attempting to work with these transient young people. The Foundation of France is running a campaign with the slogan "Un enfant ne doit pas perdre son enfance" (a child should not lose its childhood). The director of operations at the local children's tribunal, Madame Lodwick, is also worried. But despite their best efforts I cannot help wondering if the scale of the task they face in Marseilles is too complex for them to manage at a local level.
Fieldwork in the early hours. I see a number of young prostitutes working. France probably has the most creative bureaucracy of all European countries when dealing with troubled youngpeople. Marseilles is, no doubt, doing its best but despite the advantages that its international port brings to the city it also brings rootless people in transit. Young people have welfare facilities available to them but an unsatisfactory number remain on the street and have to sell sex to survive.
Marseilles has been the site of a market for more than 2,500 years. But the simple "supply and demand" approach cannot be allowed to take its course with children, even if it is in action in many corners of Europe, including the welfare system of our own country.
David Barrett Head of the department of professional social studies, University of Luton.