Silent violence: why is Armenia keeping quiet about child trafficking?
Three cases of exploitation of children in Armenia have recently become known to the public. Violence against children, exploitation of child labor, and child trafficking are some of the most common but also the most covert types of crime as parents or guardians are often either involved in it or simply unaware of what is happening to the minors in their household. On top of that children that fall victim to child trafficking often don’t know where to turn to for help.
The three recent cases concern 30 and 54-year-old women forcing their children, one of whom was as young as 2, to beg and beat them up when they refused to. Another case was launched against a 35-year-old man who exploited and beat up the son of his partner.
30% of victims of trafficking in the world are children. In recent years, cases of forced child labor have become more frequent in Armenia.
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“I stood on the bridge and thought, God, give me a sign”
“I don’t know much about my father. Mother says that he died shortly after my birth. I have almost no good memories from childhood but a lot of bad ones. My mother has mental problems. She is very good, kind, but just like a child, she easily falls under the influence of other people. I do not remember how old I was when I started begging with her. But I remember that every day she brought the collected money and gave it to the woman in whose house we lived – as a rent”, recalls Lusine (name has been changed).
It all started when the mother left her father’s house and settled with her child in a basement room on the outskirts of Yerevan. The idea of begging came from the landlady so that the tenants could pay her rent.
“It was an elderly woman, for a while I called her grandmother. I’m sure we collected a lot more money than this little room was worth, but she was always unhappy, hurt me and my mother, forced me to beg every day. I already went to school in the same area, but I often missed classes because she forced me to go out on the streets with my mother.
I was very ashamed when teachers or classmates saw me begging. I don’t remember a day that I didn’t argue with my mother about this. I wanted to go to school, I liked studying, but my mother said that ‘grandmother’ does so much for us, allows us to live with her, and this is an opportunity to repay her”, recalls Lusine.
In high school, she managed to persuade her mother to let her go to school. The girl was loved by all teachers but no one raised the problem of frequent absences, dropping out of the educational process, or the possibility of child exploitation. The situation got worse when a man appeared in the mother’s life:
“When he appeared in our house, I realized that this is not salvation but a new circle of suffering. He managed to turn my mother against me. I was no longer able to go to school, although I was in my last year. I understood that education is my only chance to get out of this abyss.
One day, when I once again said that I would not go begging that I was ashamed, this man said: “So you’ll earn a living differently. Nobody will live in this house for free”. I did not immediately understand what he meant, but in the evening, when he came home and said that he would take me to some place, I understood everything. I was petrified wanted to die.
I don’t know how I was able to run away from home. I remember it was raining. The only place I could go was to my classmate’s home. I called and asked permission to spend the night with them, but the mother of a classmate said that the owner probably would not allow it. When I heard this, I realized that there was no other way, went to the bridge and thought that only a step separates me from freedom and the life that I would never agree to live.
I stood on the bridge and thought: “Lord, give me a sign, just one sign”. Suddenly the phone rang. It was my classmate’s mother, she said that the owner had allowed me to spend the night with them”.
There Lusine met the mistress of the house. Outwardly, a strict woman, having heard her story, invited the girl to live with her for as long as she needed. On her advice and with her help, Lusine turned to the police, wrote a statement against the man who exploited her and her mother. A case was launched and the man was arrested.
Lusine lived in this house for a long time – she graduated from high school, found an organization that helps victims of trafficking, entered the university, found a job, and then new housing.
Indifference and lack of information
The most widespread types of trafficking in Armenia are sexual and labor exploitation of children. In recent years, the number of cases of labor exploitation has been increasing.
Most of them are not recorded or identified, as victims of trafficking generally do not talk about violence, considering it a common occurrence.
According to the police, 6 criminal cases on charges of child trafficking have already been initiated in the first quarter of 2021. During the previous years, the situation was as follows:
- in 2020, 10 criminal cases were initiated,
- in 2019 – 8,
- in 2018 – 10,
- in 2017 – 17.
The 2019 US State Department report says that despite the efforts of the state to combat trafficking, a regression was recorded in Armenia. According to the report, the problem is especially relevant for men living in rural communities, as well as children from various state institutions of care – boarding schools and orphanages. They are usually forced to work on livestock and agricultural farms.
Most of these cases remain unsolved since part of the society is indifferent to them and the evidence is usually deemed insufficient. For example, a child who is engaged in begging or hard physical labor in a store is not perceived as a victim of trafficking, and working on a farm without wages, only for housing, is not considered by many to be exploitation.
In the national program for combating trafficking and exploitation of 2020-2022. for the first time, the procedure for combating trafficking in children was outlined. Their special vulnerability, latency of crimes against them, as well as the responsibility of the state in relation to them are taken into account.
Who helps victims of trafficking and how
Victim identification in Armenia is handled only by the Commission for the Identification of Victims of Human Trafficking and Exploitation. Three state structures are involved in the work of the commission – the police, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, as well as three organizations from the public sector.
Head of the Department of Trafficking and Women’s Issues at the Ministry of Labor Sophie Bostanchian says that the state is implementing two programs to support victims of trafficking:
“One of them provides social and psychological rehabilitation and assistance. Since 2020, the program is fully funded by the state. In the past years, the program has been co-financed by partner public organizations.
It is important that this assistance is provided not only to victims of trafficking but also to possible victims, that is, people who were not identified by the commission as victims. This is done taking into account the fact that it may take a certain time for the conclusion of the commission, and people need help without delay”.
Trafficking victims are provided with
- material aid,
- if necessary – medical assistance,
- necessary paperwork is either restored or a new one is issued.
The victims of trafficking are also provided with legal assistance, counseling from a lawyer and a psychologist, as well as support in obtaining an education for those children whose parents were trafficked and are in a shelter.
Sophie Bostanchian says that, at the request of the victim, the ministry also helps with job placement, since after leaving the shelter they face the problem of reintegration.
Within the framework of the second program of the state, victims of trafficking are provided with one-time financial assistance in the amount of 250,000 drams ($ 509) – for basic expenses. Starting from 2020, children who have become victims of trafficking can also receive financial assistance.
“I went to say that I won”
“It seems to me that this one call changed my life, became the answer to all my suffering. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had not met that woman if I had decided to step into the unknown that day. She saved me”, says Lusine, recalling the worst day of her life.
She continues to communicate with her mother, who is angry with her for “sending her husband to prison.” She also communicates with the owner of the apartment, who forced her to beg.
“When I entered the university, the first thing I did was go to that woman. She told me all my life that I will not achieve anything, that the fate of my mother awaits me. I went to tell her that she was wrong, I defeated her”, the girl says.
Lusine’s boyfriend knows about her past, but his family does not yet. She tries not to look into the past, she knows that the best is ahead of her but worries that her past can stain her future.