By Stefan J. Bos, Worthy News Europe Bureau Chief reporting from Budapest
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (Worthy News)-- Key non-governmental groups and officials have urged the European Union to urgently tackle the "growing problem" of street children moving from Eastern to Western Europe, by improving cross-border cooperation and child protection.
They made the appeal at the 'European Forum On Street Children 2009' in Budapest, amid concerns that the EU's open borders mean that "unaccompanied" minors from poorer member states are increasingly roaming the streets of richer Western European cities.
There are believed to be a quarter of a million street children in Europe, although officials cautioned that figure may be higher because as many as 1.5 million young gypsies, also known as Roma, are "unregistered".
In a final declaration, delegates attending the Forum, urged the EU to realize the European Parliament's goal of ending "the phenomena of street children" by 2015.
"The increasing freedom of circulation of separated children within the EU following the removal of barriers as a consequence of the [EU's cross-border] Schengen Agreement" is "an increasingly European" phenomena "with the recent access of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union posing particular challenges," they said.
The situation worsened since former East block countries began joining the European Union in 2004, according to the European Federation for Street Children (EFSC), one of the organizers of the two-day Forum, which ended Friday, September 25.
Delegates stressed it was crucial to increase cooperation between the "origin and destination countries" of street children and to adopt common European standards aimed at protecting minors from prosecution for crimes such as stealing.
"We should achieve a rule of non-punishment and non-detention of these children first of all, which is not guaranteed in a number of countries," explained EFSC Director Reinhold Müller. "The Czech Republic and Finland have a progressive system where there is quite a high protection until the age of 18. So the exchange [of information] between the [EU] member states of best practises [regarding street children] is very important," he told Worthy News and its partner agency BosNewsLife.
Many street children have become victims of organized crime groups, while others are forced to feed their impoverished families by bagging, playing music or even providing sexual services, according to advocacy groups.
EU member states should therefore ensure that "spending levels for social projects of child protection" such as supporting troubled families, "are maintained in spite of the [global] economic downturn," the Forum's final declaration said.
Additionally, the delegates urged the European Commission (EC), the EU's executive body, to make children's rights a central part of its "social agenda" following the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion in 2010, and to increase cooperation with NGOs.
The EC's Policy Officer for the Fundamental Rights and the Rights of the Child, Marek Stavinoha, declined to tell Worthy News whether the Commission would agree with, or at least study, these recommendations. "I can't talk to the press, otherwise I lose my job," said Stavinoha, who participated in the Forum.
Former European Parliamentarian Anthony Simpson wasn't surprised. "The position of the European Union is somewhat difficult....Issues on children's rights and how children are treated are the [responsibility] of the Council of Europe, which is a body based in Strasbourg," added Simpson, who represented the British Conservative Party from 1978 to 1995 in the European Parliament.
However, he said, European legislators could focus on the Daphne program he helped to develop, a scheme aimed at combating violence against especially women and children so families can stay together.
Yet, EFSC representative and Roma activist Anna D'ambrosio made clear that tackling the issue of street children has been made difficult by under representation of Roma in the European Parliament. Many street children are of Roma origin, but have no voice, she added.
"There are wonderful examples of Roma who have become lawyers who now to help their peers to fight discrimination. But in the European parliament there are only two representatives of Roma, but in comparison there should be about 80."
A lack of Roma involvement in legislative decisions, also leads to wrong choices, suggested
Müller.. "There have been pilot programs where they were building a kitchen for four persons. If you know that many Roma families have 20 persons, you understand that they don't want to go to live in these homes."
A key element of the Budapest gathering was a bizarre theater performance of Hungarian teenagers trying to quit the habit of drugs addiction, a major problem among street children, who often turn to drugs to escape the harsh realities of their young lives.
They made cat sounds, played music, danced and sang cynical songs that included words
like 'I just eat Mártha...But I don't tell you where I buried her.'
Performer Eszter Jakob, an 18-year-old stunning blond who could have walked away from a Hollywood-set, didn't appear cynical when talking to BosNewsLife about her troubled life on the streets of Budapest, and plans for the future.
Once a successful ice-skating dancer, she turned to drugs as a teenager because of depression. "I didn't want to have a boring life," she said. However, "Now I seek adventure, but without drugs, if possible."
She is among dozens of youngsters attending the theater-therapy program of Budapest-based Megálló Csoport Alapítvány, or 'Stop Group Foundation' in English, to help her overcome her addiction. "We try to show teenagers that life does not have to be boring without drugs," said Tímea Kiss, who runs the program.
As all helpers at the center, the 36-year old woman was once addicted to drugs. "That was now 12 years ago, and I don't want to look back," Kiss said. "In fact, I will marry soon..."
She is pleased that the accession of Hungary and other Eastern European countries to the EU has made it more easy to help children in need. Yet, economic difficulties have impacted her work. Authorities in Budapest are planning to take down the building of her foundation, she claimed. Officials were not immediately available for comment.
Without a building, youngsters struggling with addiction may find themselves once again on the streets, she explained, while NGOs would have another reason to hold a conference.