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Iran: Needy Youngsters Live On City Streets (Part 1)

Recent reports in the Iranian press that 100 to 150 street children die each month have shed new light on the plight of small children who are forced to work on the streets. In part one of a two-part series on Iran's street children, RFE/RL correspondent Azam Gorgin describes the children's plight and efforts to help them.

Prague, 7 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's daily "Dowran Emrooz" reported last month that Tehran has 25,000 to 30,000 children forced by adults to live and beg on the street or work as slave laborers in sweat shops.

The paper said the death rate among street children is high, from 100 to 150 a month. The cause of their deaths varies from malnutrition to diseases brought on by unsanitary conditions.

In other Iranian cities, the plight of street children also makes headlines. The daily "Ghods" wrote recently that in the western city of Arak there are enough children aged 6 to 15 begging on the streets to obstruct both passenger and car traffic.

Our correspondent called a group in Tehran which aids street children to learn more about their lives and what resources are available to help them.

Shirley Najafi of the Society to Protect the Rights of the Child says that the parents of many of the street children are drug addicts. She says others are jobless immigrants, and still others give birth to numerous children simply to exploit them for work.

"Some of these families give birth to these children for sheer exploitation to work for them, or some are Afghani immigrants with the excuse that these kids don't have birth certificates and cannot go to school, and so they send them to work on the street. Some are from Bangladesh, and they are all over Iran."

Najafi's society -- a charitable organization supported largely by contributions from ordinary citizens -- seeks to help the children by providing them with meals and vocational training. That puts her in daily contact with the children and the scope of their problems.

Najafi said she considers the children who sleep on cardboard on the sidewalks, in parks, or in vacant and dilapidated buildings to be luckier than those who remain at home with exploitative parents. "We have cardboard sleepers, some have families, but I think those cardboard sleepers are better off than those with families because the [parents are] addicts and they usually have a very small, dark and damp room and terrible living conditions."

Najafi says the children usually are forced by their parents into begging. But some children are brought to Tehran by traffickers who have rented them, or kidnapped them, from rural families to put them to work as beggars or menial laborers.

Najafi says that smaller children often are put together with older ones and taken in a group to places throughout Tehran, including the wealthier northern districts, to collect money from passers-by. If they don't collect enough, they are punished.

"These kids are scattered all over the place, on the northern streets of Tehran, too. Sometimes they are put together with kids of 8 and 10 years of age, and are put to work to beg in the streets. They have to collect money and then go home. Otherwise they are beaten, burned or subjected to other physical punishment."

The adults who exploit the children often train them for criminal activities, including selling illegal drugs and alcohol. Much of that activity goes on in one of Tehran's poorest areas, known as Davarzeh Ghar. Najafi says:

"We have children who have been trained to buy and sell narcotics. These kids pass on drugs and alcoholic beverages and get involved themselves. In the park of Davarzeh Ghar there is every possibility for these children to move toward crime. Until now nobody has been able to overcome this problem. And, we at [our society] are trying to ask responsible organs to help with the situation, but our capabilities are very limited."

Statistics about the fate of the children -- such as how many die from disease or neglect -- are hard to confirm. But Najafi, who works with the children closely, says that the death rate is three to four each day. That coincides with newspaper accounts of 100 to 150 deaths a month.

She also says that estimates of the street children population in Tehran could be higher than is often reported in newspapers.

"The statistic I hear is about 25,000, but I think there are more."

Social workers say the children's plight is aggravated by the fact that the government provides little help to them. One reason is the government's limited resources for dealing with social problems in general, due to a weak economy and double-digit unemployment. Another is that many of the children are from immigrant families who are not citizens and so are not a priority.

That leaves the task of helping the children in the hands of charitable individuals and groups. But they say they are overwhelmed by the problem and can only do a small bit to help -- as we will see in the second part of this series.

(The second part of the series on Iran's street children describes the efforts of one charitable group to help them.)