Roma children from Albania are forced to beg on the streets of Kosovo with neither their parents nor the authorities prepared to take responsibility for their right to safety, to a life with education or to a secure future.
In the city of Ferizaj, everybody knows where “those from Albania” live. They direct you to the suburbs of the city, to a neighborhood not far from the well known Sallahane neighborhood, where the local community are mainly ethnic Ashkalis.
In summer, the neighborhood becomes noisy, with new families moving there from Tirana, Elbasan, Fier and Durres. Sometimes newcomers’ children mix with the locals, playing cheerfully in alleys and forgetting for a while the hardship that they face in this land.
From early morning to late evening they are forced by their parents to chase people in the streets and ask for money. Sometimes they are ordered to sit on the sidewalk without moving for many hours, hoping to arouse the pity of passers-by and take their coins.
NGOs in Albania fighting for the rights of the Roma community believe their childhood and education are sacrificed so their families can have a roof over their head and food on their table.
Away from their homes and without a permit for a long stay in Kosovo, their parents’ priority is to avoid the police and avoid being deported.
But according to authorities and NGOs, for the children being forced to beg there are bigger risks: sickness, accidents, being robbed, beaten up, sexually exploited and abused, trafficked by criminals and being kidnapped for illegal adoption are only some of the risks that Roma children face on daily basis.
When a child roams in the streets, these risk grow even more.
In Albania, the Roma are the poorest and most marginalized ethnic community, often on the verge of survival, and for years they have exploited their children and forced them to beg on the streets of Kosovo.
Daniel, a seven year-old from Tirana, begs in a parking lot in Prizren. After the drivers park their car, he follows them asking for money. His grandmother Maria, who begs in the streets of Prizren, is horrified that someday he might be hit by a car.
“Only my heart knows how difficult is to ask Daniel to beg, but his mother left and this is the only way I can feed him and his brother,” she said.
In the first nine months of 2018, Kosovo police have identified 140 citizens of Albania begging in its cities’ streets. It is estimated that at least 85 of them are children.
According to the police, last year 127 Albanian citizens – adults and children combined – were identified as begging in Kosovo streets. In 2016 the number was 172, in 2015 was 162 while in 2014 it peaked to 455.
Altin Hazizaj, director of the Children’s Human Rights Centre of Albania, CRCA, said for Prishtina Insight that they have had many cases reported of Albanian Roma children who have begged in Greece and Italy suffering from sexual abuse or being used for pornography and prostitution involving pedophile rings.
“From Kosovo, we haven’t got such reports, but no one should be surprised if a few years later such stories are going to be reported to us or other institutions,” he said.
Kosovo Police echo the concern. Police officer Salih Dragidella said Kosovo’s city streets can easily turn dangerous for children brought in to beg.
“The risk is high especially for girls. They are at a serious threat of trafficking,” he warned.
According to the Kosovo Police figures, during 2016 and 2017 they identified 23 cases where children were exploited for prostitution, five for forced labor and services and three who were held in slavery.
Kosovo’s main city courts such as Prishtina, Prizren, Ferizaj and Gjilan had difficulty showing that they had dealt with cases where victims have been children from Albania.
The only case that the Ferizaj court could provide was of July 2016, where an abuser of a 13 year-old child was a woman compatriot with the initials E.A.
“The child has been exploited and forced to do hard work, more exactly to beg, every day from the morning to the late evening from this woman that was not her mother and the money collected during this activity was kept by her,” the ruling read.
It ended with the judge’s decision not to proceed with the conviction of the woman, but deported her to Albania and banned from entering Kosovo again for the next two years.
Deportation like this is how Kosovo Police and the judicial system has handled the situation with Albanian Roma people for many years.
During the first six months of 2018, they deported 56 people across the Albanian border – children and adults.