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Romania: EU Report Assails Nation Over Treatment Of Orphans

The European Parliament's special envoy for Romania last week issued a draft report criticizing the country's lack of progress in improving the situation of abandoned children. The draft report, released by envoy Emma Nicholson, also singles out Romania as last in the line of candidate countries looking to join the European Union, and warns that enlargement negotiations could be suspended if reforms continue to lag. But Romania's government has dismissed the document, saying it was full of errors and exaggerations. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc reports:

Prague, 4 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A European Parliament draft report released last week (1 June) harshly criticizes Romania's treatment of its institutionalized children, and warns that failure to improve the situation could lead to suspension of EU enlargement negotiations with the Balkan country.

The 19-page report also singles out Romania as lagging behind the 11 other EU candidate countries -- with only 6 negotiation chapters out of 31 completed -- and questions the Romanian government's commitment to reform.

The document, drawn up by the European Parliament's special envoy for Romania, Baroness Emma Nicholson, focuses primarily on the situation of institutionalized children. It cites "persistent abandonment of children, child abuse and neglect, international adoption and child trafficking."

The draft report goes on to say children in orphanages are often submitted to "daily beatings and assaults, food deprivation leading in some cases to starvation, sexual abuse, and lack of proper medical care."

The report acknowledges that some progress has been made in the treatment of abandoned children since a new government took office in Romania last December. But Nicholson told RFE/RL that authorities must discourage the ongoing practice of poor people giving their children away:

"They [Romanian authorities] have exacerbated a situation whereby poor families traditionally -- under [communist dictator Nicolae] Ceausescu -- were paid to have more babies and give them to the state. Now, in many ways, that situation has not been stopped."

Romania's tens of thousands of abandoned children are a legacy of the social policies of Ceausescu, who banned abortion in the country. After the fall of communism, the world was shocked to see images of abandoned children -- many infected with the HIV virus that causes AIDS -- being kept in sometimes horrific conditions. Although the situation has improved, Romania still has more than 60,000 children living in some 300 state orphanages, while approximately 30,000 have been placed with foster parents.

The EU has made improving the situation of Romania's orphans a key requirement ever since it began accession talks with the country last year.

Last year, the European Commission warned that although Romania was still fulfilling the political requirements for accession talks -- known as the Copenhagen criteria -- its position might be re-examined if authorities continued to fail to address what it called the "crisis in [Romania's] child-care institutions."

Earlier this year (27 April), EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen also warned that Romania must improve the situation of its institutionalized children.

Romanian authorities, who say they have stepped up efforts to prepare Romania for EU entry, reacted angrily to Nicholson's report, saying it was full of errors and exaggerations.

President Ion Iliescu dismissed the document as being Nicholson's "personal opinion" and said she should "come and try to raise children in Romania on the average monthly salary of $100."

Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said his government has what he called "strategies for solving the problem," and that progress has been made. Nastase said he has already sent a letter to Nicholson and that the Romanian government was sending a list of what it saw as the report's errors to Verheugen:

"I told Mr. Verheugen that the cabinet members have carefully examined the draft report and made certain remarks about the text. [They have] made the necessary clarifications, and these clarifications are contained in a table which highlights the document's exaggerations and misinterpretations."

But Nicholson says she has received information that some Romanian officials have encouraged women to hand their children over to child-care institutions so that they can be sold abroad for large sums of money. She tells RFE/RL that she strongly recommended that the government take immediate legal measures against those suspected of participating in the sale of Romanian children:

"Most certainly I have met with officials myself, and I have been given evidence from highly credible sources, of other officials in the system who in the last five years have done things that have been contrary to the best interests of the child and have certainly made a lot of money for those officials. I have put to the new government the strong recommendation, privately, that these officials should be charged and that the full weight of the law should be brought to bear. And some steps have been taken."

Romania's European Integration Minister Hildegard Puwak today said the government expects Nicholson to produce evidence to support her "serious accusations."

But Nicholson says Romania remains one of the main sources for child traffickers, and that large sums of money are at stake. Nicholson says child trafficking has become a global business.

"There's a market, a global market in children. Now, alas, Romania is one of the source countries. What do I define as a market? A market is where you adjust the price to fit the commodity. And a Romanian child can fetch anything on the open market advertised on the Internet, anything between $3,000 and $49,000. On the black market, it can be even more."

Nicholson's draft report will be discussed in the European Parliament's Committee for Foreign Affairs before being submitted for approval to the parliament in September.

However, a suspension of accession talks with Romania remains unlikely, as the European Commission -- the EU's executive body -- has taken steps to distance itself from the report. EU enlargement spokesman Jean Christophe Filori told Romanian radio last week that negotiations with Romania "must continue."

Nicholson herself thinks suspending the negotiations with Romania will not help. But she says the government must work to stop the dubious international adoption of Romanian children:

"I don't think it [suspending accession negotiations] would help. What would help would be the government addressing the problems, particularly the problem of international adoption, because [of] the huge sums of money available for a Romanian baby or a Romanian toddler or a Romanian child, going in some cases to a future that appears to be completely indistinct. Some children -- nobody can tell me where they've gone to."

The Romanian government says plans are underway to cut the number of children placed in institutions by almost half (25,000) by the year 2004, and to give aid to impoverished families to prevent them from abandoning their children. Prime Minister Nastase says legislation on child protection will also be completed this year.

Nicholson's draft report cites alleged political interference in Romania's judiciary, and urges authorities to pay judges higher salaries. On average, a judge currently earns the equivalent of $200 per month.

The draft report also voices concern about the appearance of unofficial intelligence agencies within government ministries and criticizes the lack of progress in reducing the country's corruption. But the report does praise Romania for its role in helping to forge stability in the Balkans.