Street children remain a common sight in Greece

 Street children remain a common sight in Greece
Posted : Sun, 28 Oct 2007 02:09:03 GMT
Author : DPA

Athens – Carrying a bag full of lighters, key chains and other trinkets, 11-year-old Marenella walks through the cafe-lined streets of Monastiraki Square in central Athens selling her wares. Rain or shine, Marenella can be seen touting her goods to locals and tourists in the hope of meeting the daily quota enforced by her mother who waits in the shadows nearby.

Two streets away, Iliana, 10, and her younger sister Christina roam from one table to another in a bid to sell flowers and tissues.

"I went to school today and I am sent out every afternoon to help bring in money. My sister is always with me and together we help support our younger brothers and sisters," says Iliana.

Iliana is one of thousands of children from Albania and other Balkan countries who are forced to beg or sell trinkets every day at cafes and restaurants across Athens and in other major Greek cities.

Until a few years ago, thousands of children were being smuggled into the country by trafficking gangs from the poorer northern neighbours to work the streets as beggars and prostitutes until a government crackdown.

"What we are seeing is that police and the government have cracked down on the networks of organized crime involving child-trafficking in recent years but we now have a new phenomenon of families from these countries coming in and exploiting the children by making them work the streets," said Arsis, director for the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, Nikos Gavalas.

According to Arsis, a non-governmental association which works closely with Hellenic Aid and Swiss-based Terres des Hommes to protect street children and to combat child labour and trafficking, up to 150,000 children of immigrants, refugees and Roma families are often forced into child labour in Greece.

The children, often as young as 3 or 4, normally work in the afternoon hours or on weekends with the consent of their parents after school has ended for the day.

"We try to come in contact with the children we see begging or working on the streets – gain their trust which could take months – and try to determine whether they are accompanied by a family member or go to school to establish if it is a trafficking case," said Elda, a sociologist with Arsis.

"If we believe that it is a trafficking case we go to the authorities. If the youngsters are indeed accompanied by their family, then we try to work with the parents to ensure that the children get off the streets and go to school."

"The parents know that we do not want children working in the streets, so it is not always possible to establish good relations with them," says Elda as she approaches a child trying to beg money off a tourist in Monastiraki.

For years, Greece faced international criticism for failing to tackle powerful trafficking rings, who also smuggle drugs and guns across the Balkans. Measures by non-governmental organizations and various governments reduced the phenomenon in recent years.

In 2006, Greece and Albania signed a bilateral agreement with the aim of protecting and assisting Albanian children trafficked in and to Greece, as well as trying to prevent the trafficking of children in Albania.

"What we are seeing is fewer cases of trafficked children but more and more cases of families from Albania, and just recently more from Romania and Bulgaria because of the opening of their borders, coming to Greece and forcing their children to work or beg," says Arsis director in Athens, Katerina Koutou.

Although Greek law stipulates that children under the age of 16 are not permitted to work, there is no proper legal framework in place that punishes parents of exploited children.

"The parents are taken to court and given a small fine but the court cannot prosecute them. They simply pay the fine off … what is it to them? Their children make it up by working just one day from morning to night," says Gavalas.