The Problem of Begging: Serbia
A research on begging among children conducted in Serbia through the cooperation of the Ombudsman and the Norwegian organization Save the Children, involving state agencies and the civil sector as well, determined that out of the total number of child beggars, as many as 74% are Roma minors. This indicates that belonging to the Roma population makes an individual highly vulnerable to taking up begging. There is no agreement regarding the definition of the term begging among children, nor is there a systematic approach to tackling this issue and protecting children’s rights.
In the first sunny days, Belgrade crossroads, café gardens and the busiest places in pedestrian zones become gathering places for a great number of beggars. Beside the elderly and the disabled, one can most often see women with children, for the most part barefoot or scantily clad, approaching people asking for money they need for the sustenance of their families.
Some hand out money, some pass and even look away, but everyone will agree that this constitutes begging. On the other hand, a much smaller percentage of citizens, as well as the police, government centers for social work and even non-governmental organizations will recognize singing in a public place, selling flowers or washing windshields in which children are quite directly involved as begging.
Not a single state authority system has records on this phenomenon, so there is no certain way of determining how many children really are involved in panhandling. What everyone notices is that, when it is sunny, a greater number of beggars can be seen on the streets. In winter such sights provoke stronger feelings in those facing an extended hand.
According to available information, half of the children who panhandle belong to the 10-14 age group, only 6% are teenagers ages 15-16 who can be held criminally accountable, and the rest are children under the age of 10.
The research showed that only 7% of children panhandle due to poverty only, while 4% end up begging due to a lack of parental care, without being members of the Roma population.
There is no specific data regarding organized human trafficking, which organized panhandling involving minors amounts to – although the fact that this type of unwelcome conduct certainly exists and is quite well organized is often discussed.
NO ONE IS RESPONSIBLE
The problem of begging is relevant to many city agencies, but none of them is directly in charge, so even if one were to abandon the cliché according to which handing out money to children constitutes charity and consider reporting child abuse, they would have a hard time determining who they needed to address. In terms of authority and common sense, the Municipal Police should be the first to notice this problem, since begging constitutes a violation of municipal order and combating panhandling is among their duties.
When we tried to obtain information from them directly regarding the number of complaints filed over this kind of offence and the involvement of children, they referred us to the city Center for Social Work since they did not have those records. The City Inspection Secretariat should register the usurpation of space on which panhandling takes place and act in accordance to the law but… “Our employees usually warn the panhandlers and ask them to leave the area they have usurped. The fine for this offence is around 5.000 dinars, but it is paradoxical to fine someone who is panhandling. They usually do as ordered and leave”, they said in the Secretariat for Inspection Affairs.
Police patrols should register the misdemeanors or possibly criminal offences, since panhandling involving children, especially if it is organized (which is always suspected) constitutes human trafficking, which is a criminal offence. What the police mostly does, is to inform the Centers for Social Work and refer the children who were found begging to be further processed.
The police receive feedback on only 30% of the cases they report to the Centers for Social Work and this information indicates that as many as 70% go back to the streets and continue panhandling. This brings us to the institutions which should tackle this issue most comprehensively like the Centers for Social Work. However, for a long time in Serbia this sector has been underperforming.
Empty coffers contribute to the fact that the smallest number of cases is solved through financial aid to the families of the children panhandling and by strengthening the families themselves so they can get more actively involved in the society, get educated and provide for their own sustenance through regular channels and jobs. However, although the biggest share of the reports the police receives regarding panhandling involving children comes from the citizens, which testifies to the fact that average people do believe that this problem needs to be approached in a more serious manner, the options the Centers use mostly boil down to repressive measures.
Children are provided for in the appropriate institutions, proposals are made for initiating proceedings for misdemeanors or criminal offences, but financial and general support to afflicted families is least discussed. Off-the-record, the most common cause for this indifference of civil servants lies in the fact that they believe that discouraging Roma children from panhandling is almost an impossible mission since, after such measures are undertaken, they go back to the streets and their vicious circle.
INCLUSION IS THE ANSWER
Children being excluded from the regular education system and the lack of information regarding possible child support are the main obstacles precluding integration and stopping panhandling, said the participants of a survey conducted among employees of Centers for Social Work employees. Inertia, as well as the inability of the Centers for Social Work to tackle this issue with the staff they have on their disposal has opened a space for the non-governmental sector which has initiated various programs primarily aimed at children from the Roma communities.
The setting up of the Shelter for Street Children, as well as Day Centers for children living and working on the streets has greatly contributed for at least part of Roma children to gain an opportunity to escape the vicious circle of poverty and lack of perspective. The emphasis of all programs and projects of the Center for Youth Integration, which most actively works with Roma children in these areas, is on education.
Great efforts have been made for Roma children to be integrated into pre-school programs so they could later to go on to regular schools. The Shelter and other Day Centers, provide a great number of recreational and educational workshops, which provide Roma children with new skills as well as self-confidence and awareness that education can change their lives.
Removing any child from the streets for good is an immense success, but what everyone needs to be aware of are the serious repercussions begging leaves on children. According to researchers, children on the streets are exposed to physical and health-related dangers. Their security is sub-par according to all criteria – they are difficult to notice which is why they are often physically injured, especially in traffic.
There is no protection from any kind of violence which increases the danger of criminal groups abducting children from the streets. These children thus fall prey to human and organ trafficking or organized prostitution. Panhandling is tightly linked to psychoactive substance abuse, as well as children getting involved in other illegal activities, such as stealing, drug dealing and other kinds of crime.
Child beggars are without a doubt deprived of their childhoods, since too big a burden is placed upon their backs as they are made responsible for the sustenance of their families and their own, which constitutes one of the severest kinds of exploitation.
This article originally appeared on Tocak, a news and information portal on and for the Roma communities of the Balkans operated by Transitions and four partner organizations in Bosnia, Serbia and Macedonia.