Athens' Kids Avoid Lights at X-Mas
Dec. 22, 1998
ATHENS, Greece (AP) _ The area around Iasonos Street draws its name from the factories that once produced fashionable silk, or ``metaxi.''
After the silk factories closed decades ago, brothels and tumble-down rooming houses took over the street.
Now, money is being made another way in the Metaxourgio.
``Traffic light kids'' skip school to support their families by selling paper handkerchiefs, bread rings or flowers. Others clean windshields for spare change.
The window-high faces pleading for money are no longer a surprise in Athens, a city now struggling with the problems of immigration and entrenched poverty that befell other European cities years ago.
But Greek officials have taken unusual _ and some say improper _ measures to clear the children from the streets.
Police have begun discreetly ``gathering'' the kids in a government operation aimed at cracking down on child exploitation and stopping the proliferation of young beggars.
Authorities claim the sweep is intended to protect the estimated 2,000 traffic light kids in Athens. But critics, including some newspapers, fear the roundup tramples civil rights and could wrench apart the families of illegal immigrants.
The first 29 children, mostly Albanians, were picked up Dec. 10 and placed in one of two shelters. Three parents were arrested.
``This phenomenon of children begging at traffic lights has taken on worrying dimensions,'' Public Order Minister Philipos Petsalnikos told reporters.
Under the new government program, begging children will be picked up and taken to the shelters. Police will attempt to trace their families. If they are not found or their parents are determined to be unfit, the children will be transferred to the Greek welfare system, which could include being placed in orphanages or foster families.
Doubts have emerged over motives of the measures.
``If our problem is simply one of appearance _ that deep down we want to clear the streets of the ugliness of poverty _ then ... the problem will not be solved,'' wrote columnist Pantelis Boukalas in the respected daily Kathimerini.
Petsalnikos denied charges that the government was more interested in buffing the city's image than helping the children. ``This is not a pogrom,'' he argued.
The government was prompted to take action by the fate of two Albanian children in November.
Clodiana Gili, 12, was killed by a cement truck on her first day selling at a traffic light, where she had gone to join her brothers and sisters.
The next day, an 8-year-old boy, Sait, was sent back to the Albanian capital Tirana to be reunited with his mother. He claimed that he had been snatched in Albania by a gang that exploits young children.
Theodoros Kotsonis, the deputy welfare minister, blamed the surge in begging on Greece's massive illegal migration. Hundreds of thousands of people attempt to sneak into Greece each year across its northern borders or reach the Aegean islands from Turkey.
Officials say most of the Greek street beggars are gypsies or members of the 120,000-strong Muslim minority in northern Greece. Their families moved to cities when factory and farm jobs dried up or as part of periodic government efforts to ``integrate'' them in society.
The wave of illegal immigration following the collapse of the Soviet bloc brought a new underclass to Greek streets.
According to conservative estimates, more than 500,000 illegal migrants live in this country of 10.2 million people.
``Begging had dropped to a minimum in Greece by the end of the 1980s. This problem is largely imported,'' said Kotsonis.
He ruled out direct financial support to the families of traffic light kids.
``If we do this, all of Russia, Ukraine, all of the Balkans, Africa and Asia will gather here,'' he said. ``All the desperate millions of the world,'' But he insisted the street kid shelter program could expand if needed.
Some activists have raised alarms about the growing use of children as low-cost labor or sympathy-arousing beggars in some corners of Europe.
``Children are taken from their families to work in Greece, Italy and southern France, where they are controlled by adults,'' said Nick Senton of Child Hope UK, a London-based organization helping street kids in Albania and eastern Europe.
He said desperate families have sold their children to rings for up to $1,000 _ higher than the average annual income. ``To send them back would be dangerous,'' Senton said. ``Unless the families are financially supported, they are going to recycle the kids again.''
Social Worker Myrto Lemou contends that rounding up the traffic light kids is not the answer.
``They are going to collect the children off the streets. But what will they do if they have no other way of living?'' she says. ``Will they steal? Will they peddle drugs? They have to do something. No one cares about them.''
Ms. Lemou argues that street kids and the families they support are caught in a poverty trap: Children grow up with no skills, marry in their teens, have too many children and stay poor. The fact that younger kids draw greater sympathy and make more money, compounds the problem.
Young girls can make up to $100 a day selling roses, activists say. Boys typically make less.
``It is not such a bad thing to sell flowers. What is tragic is that they miss school. They cannot read,'' said Ms. Lemou. ``They are lost. They have no skills. They pick a pencil and they can't form a letter. Many of them just want to learn how to write their name.''