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Friday, 25 January, 2002, 01:23 GMT
Moscow's street kids army
Dima,13, who has been living rough for four months
There are around 50,000 street children in Moscow
By Sarah Rainsford in Moscow

Slouched against the station wall, Dima takes a defiant drag on his cigarette.

His fingernails are encrusted with dirt, his oversized red anorak grubby and torn. He is now 13, and has been living rough in Moscow for four months.

"My stepfather's an alcoholic. He used to shout at me and hit me. So I left. Now I live here, at the station. I sleep on central heating pipes, or on a train. The police sometimes pick us up, but they always let us out again."


Russia is perhaps the only country in the world where a policeman, when he sees a child in the street, tries not to notice him

Boris Altshuler
Rights of the Child

Leningrad station, like most in Moscow, is dotted with tiny figures like Dima. They wander among the crowds begging money, or loiter near cafes angling for leftovers.

In the darker recesses, boys - some are just five or six years old - bury their noses in plastic bags, sniffing glue.

'Street army'

President Vladimir Putin has called the rise in the number of bezprizorniki, or street children, a "threat to national security" and ordered the government to take action.

Russian child begging on the streets of Moscow
Thousands children have to survive on leftovers

Officials here estimate there are as many as 50,000 children living on the streets of the Russian capital, begging, stealing and sometimes selling themselves to get by.

That is more than were left homeless and orphaned after World War II.

Today though, the majority of them have at least one living parent. While they have turned, in most cases, to drink or violence, the authorities have turned away.

'Crazy law'

Boris Altshuler, director of the Rights of the Child group in Moscow, says the current crisis is the direct result of a misguided law on juvenile delinquency passed in 1999.

Boris Altshuler, director of the
Altshuler says an urgent changes to laws on juvenile delinquency are needed

"Russia is perhaps the only country in the world where a policeman, when he sees a child in the street, tries not to notice him."

"This law, in an absolutely crazy way, forbade police from intervening with any child in the street who has not committed a crime," he explains.

In a snowy city suburb smiling, squealing children career around a playground on a makeshift sledge.

Shelters

"The Road Home" is one of just a handful of temporary shelters in Moscow.

Leningrad railway station in Moscow
Leningrad station is one of many places full of child beggars

Its 40 beds are always full, and it only caters for a handful of neglected children who come from the capital.

Galvanised by President Putin, the government has promised to build more shelters, but director Sarap Kulyanov warns that is only scratching the surface of the problem.

"Every child who ends up here has problems at home. If you don't tackle those, he'll be back on the streets in no time.

"We need to invest in a major social work programme, to focus on the families - and we need to train specialists to help them. At the moment, this is the exception and not the rule."

Dealing with delinquency was simpler in Soviet times.

Children would periodically be rounded-up off the streets and bussed outside the city limits - the famous 101 km line. Others spent a lifetime in institutions.

Today, child specialists are demanding a modern approach, centred around the family.

But unless the authorities address the root causes of poverty and misery in Russia, thousands of children will continue to choose the hardships of life on the street over life at home.

See also:

20 Sep 00 | Business
World Bank warns of poverty crisis
17 Sep 98 | Europe
WHO warns of unhealthy Europe
28 Nov 01 | Europe
Aids races through Eastern Europe
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