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UN: UNICEF Is Concerned For Children In Transitional Countries

An annual report from the UN Children's Fund today pays special attention to the plight of what it calls "lost children." They are children who end up in forced labor, sexually exploited or pressed into military service. A UNICEF expert tells UN correspondent Robert McMahon which children are at risk in the former communist nations in transition.

United Nations, 12 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- UN experts say that hundreds of millions of children worldwide are on the margins of society due to wars, deep poverty, or other family upheavals.

The UN Children's Fund, or UNICEF, says in its annual "Progress of Nations" report today that these children can be found in forced labor in factories and fields, in brothels, or as child soldiers. Their exclusion from proper education, health care, and family support, UNICEF says, has long-term and life-threatening consequences.

Our correspondent spoke with a UNICEF expert on child protection about the fate of such children in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The expert, Dita Reichenberg, says the estimated 1 million children in public care facilities in the region are most at risk. These children, she says, in many cases suffer from severe neglect, making them vulnerable to sexual or economic exploitation.

Reichenberg says a reliance on institutionalized care for children is a legacy of the communist period. But now, she says, a number of institutions such as public orphanages are barely able to support the children residing there. Reichenberg says adolescents aged 14 to 18 are increasingly running away from such institutions and ending up on the street.

"We can find these children on the streets being homeless, working on the streets, and being exposed to any possible kind of exploitation that we can imagine, including commercial sexual exploitation," she says.

Reichenberg says UNICEF does not have estimates on the number of children in those circumstances. But she says there are clear trends throughout the region regarding the fate of children in institutions.

For example, children of disadvantaged minorities, especially Roma, are usually overrepresented in public welfare institutions. Reichenberg says many times Romany children are labeled as disabled or mentally slow when they are not. They have a tendency to flee such institutions for a life on the street.

And children, who are disabled, according to Reichenberg, also make up a high proportion of the institutionalized in the region. She says this usually leaves them exposed to exploitation as well.

"They are deprived of educational opportunities, being labeled as disabled. There is little involving mainstreaming children with disabilities -- even if it's not a severe disability -- into mainstream education opportunities. So with that stigma they have very little opportunity for livelihood later on in life," Reichenberg says.

Outside of institutions, drastic circumstances such as wars have created a pool of children of internally displaced people lacking in education and basic training. Reichenberg says the conflict between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh has led to a large group of internally displaced. "Nagorno-Karabakh produced hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people both in Azerbaijan and in Armenia, and among the population are children that are excluded from many healthy opportunities. And those, again, we will find working on the streets would be overly represented by children of internally displaced families."

The breakdown of the institutionalized system and family life in parts of the region has also brought about a surge in international adoptions. But Reichenberg says this has led to abuses, including outright trafficking in children.

"International adoption should be the last resort and has to be very strongly regulated. Romania was a case in point but there were other countries, not only Romania, in the early 1990s that had actually an outflow of trafficking, mainly in children, which was under the pretense of international adoption," Reichenberg says.

She said among the countries where international adoptions were abused were Ukraine, Russia, and Bulgaria. She said priority should be placed on in-country adoptions to allow children to be raised in the same social and linguistic environment they were born into.

Reichenberg said that UNICEF, in its contacts throughout the region, is working with other child-support organizations on ways of deterring families from turning to institutionalization as an option. She said this includes setting up community-based family support centers that assist families in times of crisis.

Such centers can provide job assistance, legal aid, or even setting up extracurricular activities for children when parents cannot be around.

She says UNICEF is also promoting foster families in countries so that larger families struggling to support themselves can receive assistance from other families. The key, she says, is providing a family environment for children.