The Oliver Twists of Albania

Author: megi / Date: 18-02-2015 /

The Oliver Twists of Albania 

Albanian government raises alarm, vows to act, as international study finds hundreds of Albanian children are being exploited by parents and other adults to work as street beggars and drug harvesters. 

Tirana Times - http://tiranatimes.com/

By MEGI LLUBANI 

TIRANA, May 27 – A considerable number of street children in Albania are increasingly exploited by their parents and other adults and forced into begging or working illegally, according to a recent report that portrays a dire situation of the rights of underprivileged children in Albania. 

The report, commissioned by UNICEF and Save the Children, shows 84 percent of street children have a home and both parents. In addition, 96 percent of those interviewed said they are in the streets primarily to help their family. 

The report findings suggested that approximately 312 children were involved in harvesting marijuana in Lazarat, a lawless village in the southern region of Gjirokastra that produces massive amounts of marijuana. 

The report calls for urgent measures to reform social services and tackle the issue at the national level, and its findings have alarmed the Albanian government, according to Minister of Social Welfare and Youth Erion Veliaj. 

“According to the study, a street child generates revenues up to 100,000 leks per day for his or her exploiter. If you think you are helping by giving cash to a child who approaches your car window, you are wrong. In fact, you are helping the person who is abusing, using or trafficking the child,” Veliaj said at a recent public event. “Thus, my appeal to citizens today is: if you want to help these children you can do so by approaching your church or mosque, or the State Social Service, donating food and clothes, not money that land on their exploiter’s hands, who force these children into begging.” 

The 100-page report, National Study on Street Children in Albania, documented the profiles of street children in Albania based on their age, gender and ethnicity on one side and the kind of activities they conduct and the root causes behind the phenomenon. 

In terms of demography, the majority of street children are under 14 years old, with most of those falling in the 0 to 5 years old category accompanied by their mothers in the streets. In addition, boys dominate the number of street children identified throughout the country, comprising more than 70 percent of the total number, which according to the study reflects cultural divisions between gender roles in the Albanian society. 

A common belief that street children are either Roma or from the Balkan Egyptian community was challenged by the report, which suggested that ethnic Albanian children comprise almost one fourth of the total number of street children in the country. Nonetheless, in relative terms compared to the percentage of Roma and Balkan Egyptians in Albania, the percentage is alarmingly high for these two groups. 

The report found out, the “working children,” as they call themselves, the work varies from begging and cleaning car windows to selling knick-knacks in bars, recycling and hard labor. 

“At this age we shouldn’t work. But our families need us economically. They need help. And we have to help them. Some of these parents drink or fight and torture the kids,” a 12-year-old boy told an interviewer. 

The situation is worse with teenagers and abandoned or neglected children, who engage mostly in illegal activities such as drugs harvesting, stealing and selling smuggled materials 

The majority of them feel unsafe, physically and mentally abused, tired and in danger. They also feel discriminated and isolated from the rest of society. 

Although the report is the first quantitative and qualitative evaluation of street children in Albania, the phenomenon has been a constant feature of Albania’s difficult transition from communism to democracy. 

Data from INSTAT in 2004 revealed that 9.8 percent of children of the 6-14 age group were involved in labor activities. 

Children’s rights activists say it is not hard to imagine and understand the reasons that drive these children to the streets, and to a certain way of life. A report from World Vision Albania, a charity heavily involved with children’s rights, points to family poverty as one of the main reasons that lends children to the streets, begging and working. 

Save the Children, another international charity, established in 2009 the Centre for Children in Street Situation, which aims to provide and ensure support and protect them from all forms of exploitation on a voluntary basis. Other organizations work on a daily basis with street children, but despite their efforts the situation of street children continues to deteriorate and a coordinated effort with state structures is needed, activists say. 

The European Union is also urging Albania to take substantial steps regarding child labor. According to the latest European Commission Progress Report, no effective measures have been taken to address child labor and exploitation. The EU is asking for a system supporting families in need and providing community-based services. 

Albania has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992 and in 2008, Article 124 of the Criminal Code included criminalization of child abuse. The new paragraph states that: “Coercing, exploitation, encouragement, or use of a minor to work, to obtain income, to beg, or to perform actions that damage his/her mental and/or physical development, or education, shall be punishable by two to five years of imprisonment.” Furthermore, in 2010, parliament passed the Law on Protection of Children, which in article 21, states that children are protected from any form of … exploitation and abuse. Despite the legal framework, implementation lacks behind. 

A little known and discussed fact is movement of Albanian street children to Kosovo and other neighbouring countries. A report in the framework of the Regional Research Promotion Programme, identified that out of 150 street children, 20 percent come from Albania. Often extreme poverty and difficult economic conditions force these families to move, and Kosovo is one of their destinations. A 2013 Human Rights Report for Albania stressed that some Albanian street children migrate to other neighboring countries as well, especially during the summer. The report also states that several street children are used and abused by criminal gangs to burglarize homes, since the law prohibits the prosecution of children under the age of 14. 

While one way to help the situation is by changing the mentality that by giving money we are helping street children, another very effective way would be also to undertake policies and ensure coordination of state institutions to deal with this problem. 

“Social services in the country still operate in the form of residential care centers. Multidisciplinary social services at the community level merely exist and where they do, they are offered by civil society organizations or faith-based organizations,” said Veliaj. “It is because of this conclusion that together with our partners, UNICEF and Swiss Cooperation, we are undertaking the initiation of a comprehensive reform of our Social Services.” 

In this regard the study identifies several measures that can be undertaken at the governmental, education and local level as well as from other involved stakeholders and donors to tackle such a troubling issue. 

At the governmental level, there is a need to allocate additional funds from the state budget, in order to assess the magnitude of the phenomenon and find the appropriate measures to deal with it. Furthermore, as it is usually the case with other areas, there is a discrepancy between the domestic and international legal framework and the obligations undertaken by Albania, and their actual enforcement. Social services are lacking or limited and there is a lack of coordination between responsible state organisms to address the needs of street children. 

At the local level, the study identifies the need of local authorities to “create a new system to collect data on street children, based on the existing data at the national level, so as to make a clear division between street children and other disadvantaged groups.” 

In addition, they should enhance their cooperation with other actors in raising awareness among street children on social services provided at the local level, and encourage positive behavior towards their protection, the study recommends. 

Education, as one of the most important foundations of a healthy society, should and will be at the center of attention when tackling the situation of street children in Albania, according to activists, and the study identifies the need to invest more in discouraging school dropout among these children through universal access to education, and offer courses and trainings to specialize them in a certain direction through vocational education. 

Unless strong and immediate actions are taken, as one children’s rights’ activist puts it, “the street children will continue to be Albania’s Oliver Twists,” referring to the famous Charles Dickens’ novel that tells the unfortunate story of an orphan brought up in 19th century London, as an abused street child. “Two centuries later, the situation is not much different in today’s Albania. Instead of focusing solely on high politics, we better focus on the situation of street children in Albania, these Oliver Twists of modern times,” she added.