It's a sinister mystery that has confounded the governments of two countries and still haunts one of Europe's poorest ethnic minorities. Over a decade ago more than 500 Albanian Roma children - street beggars rounded-up by the police in Greece prior to the 2004 Athens Olympics - disappeared from this state-run care home. Why were they there in the first place and where did they go? People & Power sent Sarah Macdonald to investigate.
By Sarah Macdonald
News that hundreds of Roma children had disappeared from a state-run orphanage in Athens, Greece first emerged in 2003 in a report into child-trafficking from Albania by the Swiss Human Rights NGO Terres des Hommes.
"At Agia Varvara, from November 1998 to October 2001, 487 children out of 644 who had been received there (75%) disappeared."
That sentence has come to haunt the Greek Government.
Behind it lays a tragic story that has its roots as far back as the early 1990s, but it's only now in 2014 that one can look back with the vision of hindsight and unpick the complicated narrative that led to the children's disappearance.
Under its Soviet era dictator Enver Hoxha, Albania was a repressive totalitarian state for almost 40 years, its people cut off from the outside world. But communism's collapse in 1992, which threw the nation into economic and political turmoil, also opened up the possibility of escape to Western Europe. Hundreds of thousands seized the opportunity. Many in Albania's Roma minority, always the poorest and most marginalized community in the country, were especially keen to get out. Towns close to the border with Greece - Korce, Pogradec and Elbason – became the focus of this exodus. Young Roma, including many teenagers and even younger children, were beguiled by stories of the riches to be gained merely by begging on the streets of Greece and set off over the mountains in search of their fortunes, often carrying little more than the hopes of their destitute families with them.
But there was dark side. At the same time, traffickers emerged from organized networks working both sides of the border. People loosely connected to Roma families would offer to take their children to Greece to work on the promise that money would be sent back. Many parents effectively 'rented' their children out – some of them as young as four years old. And in more extreme cases traffickers stalked the border towns and snatched children from the streets, smuggling them over the mountains so they could be put to work in begging gangs in Thessaloniki and Athens, Greece's two largest cities. The trip could be perilous; border guards were known to shoot at them, some children fell and broke their bones running away from patrols.
For most of them, their lives on arrival were bleak; hunger, brutality, beatings and exploitation by the gang masters who ran the networks of child-beggars that hung around busy traffic junctions and railway stations. The Greek public responded sympathetically and generously to the tiny hands stretched out in supplication at their car windows. But few realized the pocket change they handed over would quickly find its way into the coffers of criminal gangs. Nor did they grasp that if the beggars made too little many of them faced a beating at the end of the day. It isn't surprising that children quickly became feral and street wise and ingenious at eliciting money from strangers.
And then fate intervened once again. Around the same time, the Greek Government was chosen to host the 2004 Olympic Games. Determined to present their capital Athens in its gleaming glory, they initiated a programme to remove child beggars from the streets and put them into state-run children's homes 'for their own protection'. In Thessaloniki this worked well. One young man, who was just 8 or 9 when the police picked him up (he had been kidnapped by traffickers in Korce) told us he that he'd been properly cared for and supported for the first time since being abducted. But he also remembers men and women circling the children's home; the very men and women who had been running the gangs. They wanted their money makers back. The director of the children's home tightened security after some of his charges disappeared and eventually gained round the clock police protection to keep the traffickers away.
In Athens, where the vast majority of the street children were operating, the police would pick up five or six children each week and take them to Agia Vavara, a grand building in the heart of the city that until that moment had been home to troubled teenage girls. According to Terres des Hommes, 84.3% of these children were Albanian Roma.
People we have spoken with say Agia Vavara was run by decent, well-meaning people. But they had almost no experience in dealing with feral and often severely neglected children who didn't speak Greek. There had no access to translators, or social workers or child psychologists. The building had only one guard. Despite their best efforts, things began to spiral out of control. The gang's angry handlers began turning up to demand the children's return, often claiming to be their relatives. Staff had no idea how to judge the merits of these claims, not least because many of the children had given false names and few of them had any papers. Sometimes children – clearly fearful and intimidated under the cold eye of the handler – agreed that this person was indeed their 'mother' or that that person was their 'cousin' or 'brother,' when the previous day the same adults had claimed family ties to another child entirely.
We have obtained records and correspondence from staff in which they plead for help from the government. The letters warn they are out of their depth and feel threatened and isolated. But little notice seems to have been taken of their appeals. Between 1998 and 2001, more than 644 children were taken from the streets and placed in Agia Vavara, and over the same period, more than 500 of them disappeared.
Some quotes from these documents tell their own story:
"At 20:25 G*** and K****** escaped from the dining room window…"
"Don't forget to remind the director that the staircase's windows are totally unprotected…"
"Around 12:00 the Albanian kids at the first floor got wild again, this can't go on!"
"I shouldn't be on my own at the shift with kids like this. This is unacceptable. "
"Two men snatched the child and boarded a passing taxi…."
In 2004, when the Terres Des Hommes report emerged, the Albanian children's Ombudsman put pressure on the Greek authorities to try and trace the missing. A revised list was drawn up increasing the number who had disappeared – though this too has been shown to be of doubtful accuracy. (During the course of making this programme, for example, we spoke to three adults who had been at Aghia Vavara as children and their names had not appeared on any list.) Since then 80 children have been located, but the other 420-plus, are still missing. In the meanwhile, under pressure from the UN and others, the Greek government began an investigation into what had gone wrong and who was responsible, but it proved inconclusive and was quietly shelved.
But some have continued to press for answers. In 2012 a local Greek MP, Maria Yannakaki, raised the issue in Parliament and the matter attracted a brief flurry of publicity. As a consequence the Greek government has attracted criticism for not doing more. When we approached the Minister of Justice in Greece for this film, although he wouldn't give us an interview, he did reveal in a statement that the investigation had in fact been archived, but was now being dusted down and reignited because of that pressure. How serious this new investigation is remains to be seen, but what is clear is that in Europe in 2014, the Roma community remains an impoverished, persecuted minority. One can't help but wonder if these missing children were not Roma, would more effort have been made to find them? If these children weren't Roma, would the authorities have made more of an effort to prevent them being lured out of windows, down the drainpipes of an orphanage back into the hands of organized gangsters?
We can only hope that somehow those children made it back to their towns and families in Albania, but in reality, it is probably unlikely.
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