|Teenagers in a Moscow subway station|
Sit at any traffic stoplight in Moscow and you are bound to see a mother carrying a swaddled child past car windows with her hand open, pleading for spare coins.
The more faint-hearted might be inclined to think that by handing over their hard-earned money they are helping the child. But more often than not, they are paying into the multi-billion-dollar illegal trade in child trafficking that is booming not only in Russia, but across the former Soviet Union.
In Russia more than 30,000 children and teenagers are reported missing every year. Many fall prey to traffickers. Another 5,000, living hand-to-mouth in the streets, are also an easy mark.
Numbers are inexact, hard to come by, and nearly impossible to confirm, but experts from Terre D'Homme say there is no doubt the problem is on the rise, especially in the former Soviet Republic of Moldova.
Terre D'Homme project director Natalia Chuard says the group plans to unveil the first two-year anti-trafficking project of its kind between Moldova and Russia. The pilot project, beginning this June, will focus initially on repatriating 100 Moldovan children recently found begging in the streets of Moscow for the benefit of criminal gangs.
She says the goal is to repatriate as many of them as possible and, through a combination of psychological and economic reintegration programs, ensure that they do not end up back in the vicious circle that is child trafficking.
"In two years time, we'll really be able to understand more on the phenomena and to provide correct answers and to prevent it," said Natalia Chuard. "And then we will be able to have quite good guidelines and collaboration here between Russia and Moldova that, at the end, those two countries, without any other kind of external support, they will be able to coordinate properly the identification and return of children back to the country of origin. [And] not only Moldova, that is the country we started with, but that could be other countries as well."
But Ms. Chuard says one of the biggest hindrances to the work at present is that across the former Soviet Union there are very few groups specializing in fighting child trafficking, and certainly not enough to combat the problem at the rate it is growing.
She also says there is a tremendous lack of legislation, and virtually no coordination between the government and non-governmental organizations and other bordering nations.
Olga Agapova is a psychologist at Coalition Angel, one of Russia's few NGOs working to fight child trafficking. Ms. Agapova agrees more coordination is needed at all levels.
Ms. Agapova says very often law enforcement bodies do one thing, while governmental departments and educational bodies do others. She says all these structures face the same issues and problems, but are subordinate to different bodies and end up working at cross-purposes in the dark.
As a result, she says many children end up bouncing from one place to another, before ending up back out on the streets, where they are subject to drugs, prostitution, theft, violence and forced labor in the form of sexual exploitation or begging.
The Commissioner for Children's Rights in Moscow, Alexei Golovan, tells VOA the Russian government must own up to the extent of the problem, before it can ever hope to fix it.
Mr. Golovan says protecting children from trafficking is not yet a major priority, either from the standpoint of the government or society. He also laments what he says is the near total lack of coverage about the problem in the Russian media.
A researcher at UNICEF's Moscow office, Gabriella Akimova, says there is some action being taken in Russia to combat the problem. But like so many experts working in the field, Ms. Akimova says the laws in Russia, as they stand right now, are far from sufficient.
"There has got to be within any law, or combination of legal provision mechanisms, there's got to be recognition of caring for the victims needs," she said. "And again, I believe that in the draft laws being drafted, there is an interest in trying to do that. Now, whether it will be implemented is another question."