Melanie Orhant (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Tue, 22 Dec 1998 14:48:34 -0500
Athens' Kids Avoid Lights at Christmas
By DEREK GATOPOULOS
Dcember 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
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
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
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
Petsalnikos denied charges that the government was more interested in
buffing the city's image than helping the children. "This is not a pogrom,"
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."
Human Trafficking Program
Global Survival Network
P.O. Box 73214
Washington, DC 20009
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