As part of my work on poverty in Armenia and Georgia since 1998 the issue of children from socially vulnerable families has been a particular focus. In 2004, some 5,200 Georgian children were living in Soviet-era institutions for underprivileged and disabled minors. Today, there are just 100, seemingly a sign that Georgia’s ambitious Child Action Plan – which aimed to reintegrate socially vulnerable kids into their biological families or, failing that, get them into foster care or alternative types of support – has worked.
According to UNICEF, there were approximately 1,500 children living or working on the streets of Georgia’s biggest cities in 2008. Often derogatorily referred to as 'gypsies' despite their actual identity, the problem is little understood let alone addressed.
Precise figures are hard to come by because many of these children lack proper documentation, such as birth certificates or passports, which also means they cannot attend school. In recent years their numbers have probably increased, swelled by young children and their elderly siblings who self-identify as ethnic Kurds from Azerbaijan. Aid groups such as World Vision and the local Child and Environment attribute the influx to tight restrictions on begging in Azerbaijan.
As a result, many Georgians dismiss the problem as only afflicting minority groups.
Yet, the problem of children living and/or working on the streets of Tbilisi spares no nationality. Children include ethnic Georgians, Armenians, Azeris, Kurds, Ossetians, Chechens, Roma, and others. This is why over the past two years I've been working on a person project to document the problem, getting to know some of the kids and their relatives incredibly well. I've been both depressed by their situation and humbled by their humanity. True, they can harrass residents and tourists, but treat them politely and as you would any child and you'd be surprised how different they act.
Alas, some residents behave as if they're worse than stray animals. "They're not Georgians," one woman screamed as I photographed some of the kids I knew quite well. "They're not even human," she ranted. Thankfully, there are other more positive stories. On numerous occasions I've witnessed Georgian shop assistants from boutiques on Pekini Street and Rustaveli Avenue let the kids come in to collect water in bottles or even try on the wigs from shop window mannequins.
Unfortunately, a two-year, €850,000 ($1.1 million) effort funded by the European Union and UNICEF in early 2013 does not appear to have achieved its goals. Meant to deploy mobile teams of social workers, psychologists, and educators and new transitional and day-care centers to identify street kids and get them into existing child-protection and social-service systems, there is instead no visible change on the streets. Some working in the area of child protection privately admit it's been a complete failure.
Moreover, although there has been successes and improvements in Georgia's policy of deinstitutionalisation, ChildPact — a regional coalition working on child and youth welfare — also reiterated the problem and the need to address it in January 2014. “[The] lack of family support services as a means to prevent further institutionalization and the presence of street children remain a key concern,” it noted.