NEWS

Child slaves kidnapped, bought or rented then sent to work the streets for ‘bosses’

Fourteen-year-old Naim has been brought to Greece to beg «so many times that [he] can no longer count them.» His bosses have become his models. They coax him to cross the borders carrying 10 kilos of marijuana. Mario was kidnapped from the Albanian capital of Tirana when he was 9 years old. He became a robot in Athens, forced into begging and petty thieving for 14 hours a day. He has been arrested three times by the police and put into the care of social services, but twice his «bosses» have come looking for him. Mario decided to stay. Today he is 14 years old and he doesn’t want to return to Albania out of fear of his former boss. He calls his mother back home regularly. Claudine, 10 years old, today lives in Krusta, Albania, in a house built of wooden planks and cardboard. She went back home from Greece after being arrested by the police. Her «boss» had her working 14 hours a day. Naim, Mario and Claudine are not fictional characters. They are three of the thousands of Albanian children who, for the past 10 years, have been rented, bartered and sold by the organized human trafficking networks operating in Greece. They are victims of the illegal trafficking of children who lived, and continue to live, in a state of modern-day bondage, despite the efforts of a few to give them back what they have lost of their childhood innocence. Revealing testimonies Naim, Mario, Claudine and countless other children from Elbasan, Korytsa (Korce), Berat and Tirana overcame the fear instilled in them by their bosses and opened their hearts, entrusting their memories to members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in the social services: the Swiss organization Terre des Hommes and the Albanian Ndhime Per Femije, which have made numerous surveys in the streets, recording testimonies of street children, their families and even their bosses. It was thanks to these testimonies that the first steps in intervention were taken in Greece (in cooperation with the Arsis youth social support group and the juvenile court prosecutor of Thessaloniki) and in Albania to prevent trafficking in children. In its report, Terre des Hommes has submitted the horrifying testimonies of these children, explains the structure and operating methods of the trafficking networks, notes the absence of any state support for child slaves – who require expert psychological and social support – and proposes a series of measures that Greek and Albanian state services could adopt to quash this phenomenon. Beggars to vendors But how realistic is effective intervention in these shady, flexible networks? Though trafficking in children has seen something of a decline over the past few years, hundreds of children still fall victim to the networks. This decline may also have to do with the fact that very few children return to the areas from which they were taken in the first place, especially key areas such as Krusta, Elbasan, Berat and Tirana. One possible reason is that the child labor networks are simply mutating according to changes that have occurred from the beginning of the first boom of trafficking in Greece in the early 1990s to the present. The children may have disappeared from the intersections and streets of Patras, Larissa, Ioannina, Kavala and Iraklion but the networks, adapted to the new circumstances, continue to operate in Athens and Thessaloniki. For example, children dressed in tatty clothes, holding out unwashed hands in a plea for help, are today replaced by well-dressed young street vendors wandering about the open-air and indoor entertainment spots of Greece’s cities selling their wares (handkerchiefs, icons, etc.) «During the ’90s, in winter we had to wear light clothes to provoke the pity of the Greeks and persuade them to give us money,» says Mirela. Since 2000, activities have evolved to the sale of small wares (handkerchiefs, icons, cards and flowers), children are better dressed and they don’t try to arouse pity as they did in the past. On the other hand, police operations are much more frequent and the families of the victimized children are informed of their living circumstances and of the profiteering of their traffickers. What has not changed, however, is the form of exploitation. Just as Naim, Mario and Claudine testify, these children continue to work over 13 hours a day to gain what is then taken by their bosses. According to the data, the joint Terre des Hommes/ Ndhime Per Femije mission in December 1999 estimated that 1,000 children were working in the streets of all large Greek cities. From 1993 to 1999, an average of 300 children a year were arrested in Athens for begging. In 1999, the Greek NGO Child’s Smile gathered 294 testimonies by street children in an on-location research operation in Thessaloniki. From November 1998 to October 2001, 664 children were put through the specialized vocational training school Aghia Varvara within the context of a program for the protection of street children. In 1998, 983 children from Albania were transported to the Albanian border by the juvenile police of Thessaloniki. In 1999, 385 children were deported, in 2000, 227 children and in 2001, 56 children. Today, social workers say that 30-40 children are working in the streets of Thessaloniki and one-third to half of them are replaced every three months. Adult treatment What is the fate of these children after their arrest? Are they in any position to escape the trafficking rackets? Twelve-year-old Alketa was forced into begging and prostitution in Thessaloniki. She was deported by the Greek police. She stayed in Albania for 23 days as part of a social and educational rehabilitation program. Under pressure from her trafficker (who was also exploiting her mother) she returned to Greece. She was spotted in Thessaloniki by one of the city’s social services groups. Her hair color was different. She disappeared for three months but reappeared in her hometown of Elbasan. The trafficking and trade division of the Albanian police alerted Terre des Hommes. Now Alketa is safe and her case is being monitored on a daily basis. In Greece, a child who has been arrested by the police is not considered a victim of trafficking but an illegal migrant. These children are treated as adults by the authorities and are arrested and then deported back to their home countries. Children under 12 years of age, after the intervention of the juvenile court prosecutor, are sent to one of the reception centers which were only established in 1998 in Athens and Thessaloniki but are not yet equipped with social and psychological support services. From the reception center of Aghia Varvara in Athens, 487 (or 75 percent) of the 644 children taken there from November 1998 to October 2001 disappeared. From the Thessaloniki center, 23 children disappeared from the 109 taken there from February to April 1999. A great deal of the responsibility for these disappearances lies with the traffickers who have their own methods of getting their «protégés» back. In order to do this, they either present the authorities with forged documents or bribe the personnel at the centers. A reliable source reports that traffickers pay up to 500 euros to get their «property» back. The methods of brainwashing used by the traffickers on the children systematically since 1999 – a period during which trafficking became increasingly difficult – ensure that the children are completely dependant on their traffickers. Living in an environment built entirely on lies, the children are led to believe that they are working to ensure the livelihood of their families and to feel guilty if they are not earning enough. «In fact, they’re right to beat us,» says Alketa. «Just think, right now my mother believes I’m working, but I’m talking to you. My mother would not be pleased.» Under the constant watch of their bosses or an overseer (often a teenager), they lie to protect themselves and their families in Albania from threats of bodily harm.