Prague, 1 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Nobody knows exactly how many children are living in institutions in Europe and Central Asia. But according to a report issued by UNICEF yesterday, the most conservative estimates put the figure at around 1 million.
UNICEF spokeswoman Angela Hawke tells RFE/RL from Geneva that these children are “extremely vulnerable” to violence.
"Firstly, they were vulnerable before they ever went into an institution. These are children for whom things have gone badly wrong otherwise they wouldn't be in an institution. Secondly, once they're going to an institution they may be isolated from their family [and] from society. And what goes on behind these closed walls is very hard to find out," Hawke said.
Residential institutions include either public or private orphanages, children's homes, and detention centers.
According to UNICEF, institutionalization -- no matter how well intentioned -- hinders intellectual, physical, emotional, and social development. The younger the child, and the longer the time spent in institutions, the greater the damage.
"We don't even know how many children live in institutions. So that makes it very, very hard to find out who they are, where they are, what their problems are. It makes it very hard to actually respond or plan."
An estimated 200,000 children are living in institutions throughout Central Asia, half of them in Kazakhstan.
In Kazakhstan, about 30,000 are orphans, with the rest being children who have difficulty with parents, behavioral problems, or children who were simply abandoned.
There are also almost 20,000 children with disabilities living in institutional care in Uzbekistan, in addition to 3,500 children without disabilities, around 800 infants under one year old, and about 570 children in detention.
Meanwhile in Kyrgyzstan, there are more than 2,000 children in institutions, while in Tajikistan at least 11,000 children under 16 are living in institutions.
Hawke stresses that violence affects children living in residential institutions from Western Europe to Central Asia.
"The situation of children in institutions is maybe no more problematic in Central Asia than anywhere else. It's the fact that they are in an institution that is part of the problem. The research shows that violence against children in institutions seems to be a problem right across Europe and right into Central Asia," Hawke said.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has raised the issue of police officers ill-treating children and young people in police custody in Albania, France, Georgia, Romania, Switzerland, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.
The committee has also expressed concern at the lack of a clear ban on corporal punishment in institutions in Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Kyrgyzstan, and Moldova.
A report on Kazakhstan shows that 80 percent of children in residential schools are treated “cruelly.”
Hawke says there are serious difficulties with obtaining data about institutionalized children which undermine the chance of an effective response to the dangers they face.
"We don't even know how many children live in institutions. So that makes it very, very hard to find out who they are, where they are, what their problems are. It makes it very hard to actually respond or plan," Hawke said.
The UNICEF study was issued ahead of a regional meeting on Violence Against Children in Europe and Central Asia taking place in Slovenia in early July.
UNICEF calls on ministers attending the meeting to legislate a ban on all forms of violence against all children in all settings -- institutions, schools, the home, and the community -- to screen staff working with children in institutions, and to create effective complaints channels for these children.
The organization also urges governments to ensure that the institutionalization or detention of children is a measure of last resort, and that that these children have regular contact with their own families.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government and the United Nations have decided to extend assistance of $2 million to the project: "Every Child has the Right to Grow Up in a Family Environment."
"This new program aims to reach around 32,000 [children] in the next year or so, trying to get them actually out of institutions, either back to their own families or into foster families. No matter how well-meaning or caring an institution is, it still can't replace a family environment for a child," Hawke said.
The project, which is also targeting 30,000 families that are at risk of institutionalizing their children, will establish community-based social services and centers for children and families, sensitize professionals and experts, boost the capacity of professionals to respond to children and families at risk, and promote foster care at a community level.