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UNICEF Concerned About Needs of Caucasus Children - 2004-01-29

U.N. Children's Fund officials responsible for Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are attending a special meeting in Geneva to review assistance programs for the region. The UNICEF officials say children, in particular, will remain in need for years to come after a decade of armed conflict and deteriorating social services, and amid continuing poverty.

The UNICEF officials say the needs of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan are too great for it to handle alone.

The officials, who are stationed in the three countries, came to Geneva to work with representatives from other agencies to set the humanitarian agenda for the Caucuses for the next five years. They say they are already working closely with the U.S. Agency for International Development and similar agencies of the European Union.

The officials say they are fighting an uphill battle. They note that poverty in the Caucuses is very severe, with at least half the people in the three countries living on less than two dollars a day, and they say this is taking a terrible toll on the children.

The UNICEF representative in Azerbaijan, Akif Saatcioglu, says the country has the image of being oil-rich. But, he says the reality is quite different. Mr. Saatcioglu says infant mortality is high, life expectancy is declining, and many of the country's three million children are so malnourished that their growth has been stunted.

And he says the conditions contribute to another problem.

"HIV/AIDS is another problem," he explained. "It is a kind of hidden problem because the number of cases are low, while the mode of transmission is intravenous drug users. But, so is the awareness on HIV/AIDS."

Mr. Saatcioglu warns Azerbaijan could be facing an AIDS epidemic in coming years if it does not take preventive measures now.

UNICEF Representative in Georgia, Ould Cheikh Ahmed Ismail, says the recent political changes in the country have created high expectations of a better life ahead. But, he says the problems facing the new government will be difficult to overcome.

"The investment in education and health is one of the lowest in the whole CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] region in Eastern Europe and Central Europe in the sense that for education it is only 2.3 percent and for health it is 1.3 percent," he said. "And, if we know that it is clearly documented that there has been a lot of mismanagement and corruption in the country, even part of this budget is not reaching also the people who need it."

UNICEF says an increasing number of children are being put into state-run institutions in Georgia, but very few of them are orphans. It says they are placed there by parents who are too poor to care for them. UNICEF says many of the children become victims of psychological, verbal and physical abuse at the hands of staff members who are badly trained and who treat the children like criminals.