Child beggars on the streets are a global phenomenon, but experts and NGOs in Southeast Europe are urging governments to take action.
By Drazen Remikovic for Southeast European Times in Podgorica -- 03/03/14
Child beggars are a global phenomenon. [AFP]
The sight of begging children, usually emaciated with dirt-smeared faces and hands, is part of the landscape in almost all of the large cities in the Balkans, with the problem growing more acute as the global economic crisis impacted families throughout Southeast Europe.
Sucko Bakovic, the human rights ombudsman of Montenegro, said more than 300 children beg on the streets of the country daily.
"This number is doubled during the tourist season, when a lot of people are on the streets. Difficult financial situations are the most common cause of this phenomenon, and most often those are the children of the Roma population. Authorities have made some efforts, but it's still not enough. The synergy of all institutions is necessary in order to eliminate this problem," Bakovic told SETimes.
According to a survey by the office of the ombudsman published at the end of 2012, children earn between 2 and 15 euros a day on the streets. About 90 percent of them said they have to beg in order to get food.
"Child begging is one of the most visible forms of child abuse. It is a complex problem that cannot be solved by a single intervention. It requires a multi-sectorial approach that includes a tight collaboration between the police, social workers and schools," Benjamin Perks, chief of UNICEF's office in Montenegro, told SETimes.
Montenegro's social services and the police evidenced 323 cases of begging and 15 charges were filed against persons who forced children to beg in 2013.
Under the government strategy to fight human trafficking for 2012-2018, the ministry of labour and social welfare said the plan is for each municipality in Montenegro to have a so-called day centre that can provide temporary care for children. Centres have already been opened in nine municipalities.
"Besides this, the Centre for Social Work formed multi-disciplinary teams in all municipalities consisting of experts in the field of social and child protection, health care, justice, police protection, protection of human rights and freedoms, as well as representatives of the NGO sector. A multi-disciplinary team provides a plan and co-ordinates activities to help the victims, in accordance with their needs and choices," Marija Jovovic, spokeswoman for the ministry, told SETimes.
In the Balkans, most of the children on the streets are from Roma families. [AFP]
Since 2004, a few day centres for children have been open in Skopje. Children receive food and accommodation and are being motivated to include themselves in the educational process.
"Measures should be undertaken to reduce poverty, especially by providing minimum assets for existence of every child, so that the child will not be forced to provide these assets by begging on the streets or by performing criminal acts," Vaska Bajramovska Mustafa, deputy ombudsman in Macedonia, told SETimes.
"In this regard, a positive step would be to undertake measures for employment of the parents of these children or to provide an appropriate type of social protection and assistance so that the material condition would not be the cause for using the children as a means to provide assets for existence."
Alex Sakellariou, a sociologist at Panteion University in Athens, said there is little political will to go after those who put child beggars on the streets in Greece.
"I don't think that the government actually cares about them. There is no youth/child policy. There are only some NGOs trying to help these children but this is not always easy. I never learned about any kind of initiative from the part of the government about that issue," he told SETimes.
"These children are invisible. They exist in public space, but actually they are invisible," he added.
Serbia's parliamentary committee for human rights announced in late January that it will release a ''white book of beggary,'' which will include data about persons who force children to beg, the number of the children on the streets and criminal reports.
According to the Centre for Youth Integration in Belgrade, there are about 2,000 children begging on the streets of Belgrade daily.
The EU member states have very different experiences in terms of children begging. In some countries, like Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and France, it is common to see children begging on the streets, or accompanying adults who are begging. On the other hand, in Sweden, Denmark and Austria, it is rare.
"Not all children begging are in the same situation. Some have been trafficked for that purpose. Parents and relatives or acquaintances of the children are earning a profit from exploiting them through begging. Other children come from families where situations of extreme poverty and lack of access to employment mean that children are begging for their families' survival," Claire Healy, a research officer at the International Centre for Migration Policy Development in Vienna, told SETimes.
She added that currently in the EU, there is a disproportionate focus on law enforcement when it comes to children begging. Often, rather than being seen as victims of trafficking, they are seen as juvenile offenders, particularly when petty theft is combined with begging.
"Child protection policies across Europe do cover the situation of these children, but are patchy in implementation and often suffer from lack of funding and lack of political will. Complete bans on begging have been seen as a potential solution in places such as Denmark, Greece and some Austrian Federal States, but are often an inappropriate response and in conflict with constitutional rights. It is clear, however, that a focus on basic child protection for these vulnerable children, as well as targeting the people who exploit them, is necessary," Healy said.
Correspondents Andy Dabilis in Athens and Marina Stojanovska in Skopje contributed to this report.
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