By Doruntina Baftiu
Already longtime victims of discrimination, the Romany community is even more vulnerable after the COVID-19 pandemic.
PRIZREN, Kosovo -- The smell of sizzling meat wafts through the air of the cobblestoned streets of Prizren, as locals and tourists alike soak up the atmosphere of one of Kosovo's more picturesque towns at the foothills of the Sharr Mountains, many lounging in the outdoor seating of restaurants and cafes.
As they enjoy the local delicacies in the sweltering summer heat, small children, dressed in tattered clothes, dart in and out of the tables, palms extended, asking for handouts.
Children begging, especially Roma children, is not a new phenomenon in Kosovo or elsewhere in Europe. However, activists as well as police there say the problem is getting worse in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
They say Kosovo's communities of Roma -- mostly Serbian-speaking -- as well as Askhali and Balkan Egyptian -- Albanian-language speakers who claim origins in ancient Egypt -- not only struggled with the virus but received, on average, a fraction of the aid doled out by Pristina to soften the economic blow.
Two young boys beg for money in return for playing music on the streets of Prizren, Kosovo.
Already longtime victims of discrimination, these communities are reportedly even more vulnerable now, activists say, and children may be paying the price amid reports of increased begging and trafficking of such children, sometimes by their parents or relatives.
Osman Osmani, who is Romany himself and has worked with kids from that community for 22 years to improve their lives, says what he's seeing now is unprecedented.
"In the 1980s or 1990s, the situation was not like this. There was poverty even then, but there were rarely families whose children were pushed to do these things," Osmani told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
According to official data from Kosovar police, 41 children were stopped and officially registered by police for begging over the first six months of 2023, a figure that is on track to set a new annual record. (Being minors, they can't be charged with a crime.)
A young boy begs for money in return for cleaning car windows in the streets of Pristina.
Most of the begging is reported in the biggest towns and cities, including Kosovo's capital, Pristina, Prizren, as well as Peja and Gjakova. That number is likely higher as many Romany kids lack proper documents, leaving police unable to process them.
Petrit Collaku, a spokesperson for the People's Advocate Institution, Kosovo's ombudsman office, acknowledges much of the community is "invisible," as far as the authorities are concerned.
"Many of them are on the move (internal or cross-border migration), and some are not registered in the birth registers or have no form of personal identification," Collaku said.
Children from Kosovo, Albania, and other neighboring countries are "forced to beg within the country," the U.S. State Department said in its latest annual report on Kosovo.
Kosovo is one of Europe's poorest countries, with 23 percent of its 1.8 million people living in poverty, according to UN data. Those figures are believed to be much higher for Kosovo's Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptians, who have historically suffered the worst poverty and have been the most economically, politically, and socially marginalized minorities.
At a day center for street children in Pristina, run by Terre des Hommes, a network of organizations that campaigns for children's rights, some 250 children are given food every day. About 90 percent of those receiving the free meals are Roma, Askhali, and Balkan Egyptian. With many Roma plunging into deeper poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic, Terre des Hommes says that every day it is giving out more free food.
With many not registered with the authorities, only 12.7 percent of Roma, Askhali, and Balkan Egyptians received local or national financial relief during the pandemic, according to findings from Foleja, a Kosovar NGO advocating for those communities' rights.
An opinion poll by Foleja found 44 percent of those surveyed from those communities said their economic situation was difficult or worse after COVID-19. A further 3 percent said things had gotten "much worse."
Activist Osman Osmani says there is plenty of blame to go around but singles out parents for "the lack of conscience that children should be in school, to socialize and play with their peers and not on the street begging."
Osmani, who heads Nevo Koncepti, a Kosovar NGO advocating for Roma rights, said that he is "really worried" about their current plight.
The "severe economic and social conditions" at home are leading to more begging by Romany kids on the streets of Kosovo, said Riza Murati, from the Trafficking in Human Beings Directorate (THBD) of the Kosovar police.
"These are the main reasons why [the children] are on the streets. They are mainly children who do not have proper care from their family but also from the district [government]. They drop out of school and their only option is to go out on the streets," Murati told RFE/RL.
To get a better picture of the backgrounds of the children forced into begging, the Kosovo office of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has launched a program to gather data on Kosovo's street kids.
Echoing others, Murati said it is the parents who push their children to beg on the streets, adding that has been confirmed in 90 percent of such cases that have been investigated by police in Kosovo.
Kosovo's Criminal Code may also be part of the problem, the U.S. State Department, among others, has noted. Under the current law, forcing their children to beg is classified as parental neglect rather than trafficking, meaning more lenient penalties in cases of conviction, the U.S. State Department said in its report, adding that police should do more to convict what it said were officials involved in the trafficking.
Osmani said there was plenty of blame to go around but singled out parents for "the lack of conscience that children should be in school, to socialize and play with their peers and not on the street begging."
Murati said police in Kosovo are doing all they can to tackle the problem of children being forced to beg, "but the problem cannot be solved by the police alone." He emphasized that many of the children registered for begging return to the streets, saying that the police know some of them by name.
A young girl begs for money in the streets of Prizren, Kosovo.
Given that the local law defines forced begging of children by their parents as parental abuse rather than trafficking, judges in Kosovo "continued to issue lenient sentences for the majority of convicted traffickers, which were below the minimum penalty prescribed under the trafficking law," the State Department noted in its report.
Longer term, education is the key to pulling Kosovo's poor out of poverty, Osmani said.
"We must have a stronger response from the social services, so that those families [in need] are in social care -- and then also from the schools so that those children are getting an education," said Osmani, who added that he and his NGO have made getting kids into school a top priority.
"We have visited families and their children in difficult conditions and engaged [the children] with various activities. We wanted them [to do this so they could] see and hear what's happening, to teach them that this is the way they should grow up and live," Osmani said.
The latest official data shows only about 25 percent of Roma finish high school, while the U.S. State Department noted vocational training was also lacking.
Osmani said change is possible if children from hardscrabble communities are given "positive examples" of those who resemble them and have "achieved success."
"With a positive example, you can influence young people, children, but also parents to make a change," said Osmani.
As for tackling the current problem of forced begging, Osmani had one bit of advice.
"Poor people should be helped, but I'm trying not to give them money," he said. "Because when you give them money, tomorrow you will see them again in the same place, and then the day after tomorrow you will see them again in the same place."
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