REALIZING CHILD’S RIGHTS IN THE BALTIC STATES

By Vincent Lyn

I must say it took a lot of research to find information on this region of the world. And within these three small countries with very small populations I was surprised at the issues children face. It seems that no matter where I go in the world and research I’m sadly alarmed of the suffering children face. Third world countries comes as no surprise but first world nations is disquieting.

According to Ieva Birka (Fellow at MPI University of Latvia and a Baltic Fellow at Yale University). “In the Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — high emigration rates and shrinking, aging populations are leading to an impending demographic crisis. The region is one of the most rapidly depopulating in the world, and according to United Nations estimates, by 2050 Latvia’s population could shrink by 22 percent, while those in Lithuania and Estonia could decline by 17 percent and 13 percent, respectively.”

It leads me to believe that her above facts are causing a breakdown throughout the Baltic states not only in family structure but communities, municipalities and government hierarchy. Further research will need to be done…

The Children of Lithuania

Since its independence, one of Lithuania’s main priorities has been the protection of children. Consequently, today’s situation is good, in general, even if certain rights are only partially guaranteed. The main problem faced by children of Lithuania. According to the figures, poverty is not a major problem in Lithuania. However, the lowest social class must make numerous compromises in order to maintain rather high standards of living. And consequently, the situation of some children is largely affected by these compromises.

A child’s right to live in a healthy and stable family environment is therefore somewhat neglected : both parents continue to work hard and are left with little time to devote to their children. The number of women who have children under the age of 6 and need to work is much higher than the European average.

Yet, Lithuanian children face problems stemming from poverty : in 2008, the child poverty rate rose to 22.8%, and was even higher in single parent families as well as in large families. In Lithuania, an increased aid for these families is not a priority. Therefore, when Lithuania experiences financial difficulties, allocated support to families, such as family allowances, are reduced : for example in 2010, family allowances were decreased by 10% because of the financial crisis. In 2019, 20.6 percent of the Lithuanian population lived under the poverty risk line, even though the figure was down by 2.3 points compared to 2018. According to the figures released by Statistics Lithuania, around 576,000 people were at risk of poverty, while 215,000 lived below the absolute poverty line in Lithuania last year.

The large financial burden of child maintenance in Lithuania is discouraging for many women, so much so that the country’s birth rate is very low (on average 1.47 children per woman). With around 8% of children unschooled, children’s right to education is not fully guaranteed in Lithuania. This problem is especially affecting young girls. However, it must be noted that Lithuania has made much progress in education since its independence. In fact, the Baltic countries have put education at the top of their list of reforms and efforts for progress. The results of this policy can be felt through substantial and well-publicized improvements in children’s access to education.

Children should be protected, both inside and outside of the family environment. In Lithuania, children’s right to protection is scoffed at because of the lack of prevention and knowledge about children’s emergency and rescue procedures. Also, Lithuania has a relatively high injury death rate (burns, poisonings, drownings, driving accidents etc.) The country therefore has to make progress in prevention and child safety in order to completely ensure a child’s right to protection.

The acceptance and integration of disable children has been difficult in countries of the former Soviet Union. Still today, handicapped children in Lithuania do not have all of the assistance that they require. Drop-in centers, in particular for young people suffering from mental disorders, are outdated. There is a lack of qualified personnel and the buildings are very old. In addition, handicapped people are not considered for what they are, and instead they are considered as a source of difficulty to their families. As such, Lithuanian legislation does not make any provisions for the social integration of these people and they are doomed to remain isolated and invisible in the eyes of society. The mentality of the Lithuanian people must change in this area and they must accept that handicapped people have an integral role in society and as such, have a right to play a role in it.

The countries of Eastern Europe are unfortunately known for easy access to prostitution. Even though there is firm and strict legislation in place, Lithuania remains a hot spot for sex tourism. Many children are employed in these networks and as a result, in Lithuania, more than 20% of prostitutes are minors, some only 11 years old. Other children have even been exploited in the making of pornographic movies.

With 4.2 tons of CO2 emissions per capita per year, Lithuania still needs to make progress to protect the environment and reduce its carbon footprint. This too has a harmful impact on the lives and future prospects of children. Their right to live and grow up in a healthy environment is not well respected.

The Children of Estonia

Since its integration into the European Union, Estonia has made a significant effort concerning the Rights of the Child especially in relation to the exploitation of minors, in terms of health care, and in education. Nevertheless, poverty linked to the economic crisis has seen a rise in child prostitution and sexual tourism in the country. What is more, the mistreatment and trafficking of children continues to persist in Estonia.

In Estonia, more than one in five children live below the poverty line (living on less than $1.25 per day). The European economic crisis has ravaged the country. The level of unemployment is still high (12.5% in 2011), with children suffering in particular from this problem. Poverty has inevitable consequences on their diet and many are found to be malnourished. To overcome this, some children are forced to prostitute themselves or to work illegally. Estonia unemployment rate for 2021 total is 6.4% and for men 7.3%. For less than 25 years it’s 14.7% with men taking up nearly all with 14.6%.

In certain regions, more than 50% of the population does not speak Estonian. In order to facilitate access to official information, the government has put in place information services in Russian. Despite the applied efforts to integrate minorities, discrimination persists, especially in relation to employment. Because of language constraints, Russian-speaking communities (which represent 30% of the population) claim to be victims of discrimination in terms of their salary and their work. In effect, public sector employees as well as those working in the service and health care sectors must be proficient in Estonian.

In this way, the level of unemployment amongst Russian-speakers is practically twice that of Estonian origin. Children naturally suffer from this discrimination, which engenders a lower quality of life, or indeed poverty, therefore limiting their access to the elements essential to their normal development. Moreover, some migrant children suffer from racist discrimination and aggression, in particular racism coming from extremist organizations such as Neo-Nazi groups. In addition to this, some migrant families are victims of harassment from state authorities, notably from border control forces.

Estonia is a point of transit and destination for the traffic of women and children. Some children are treated like slaves in this country that receives and exports human beings like a commodity. Thousands of children are the victim of such activities. Some work without a salary and in terrible conditions for the profit of their so-called « employer. » Once their passports, visas and other administrative documents are removed, these « employers », exploit the children as much as they please. Sometimes, they even go so far as to brutalize them. The sectors most affected by such activities include the agricultural, building and construction, and industrial sectors, as well as work in domestic households. Nevertheless, the Estonian authorities go to great lengths to stamp out this scourge.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the traffic of children destined for sexual exploitation in western Europe and in the United States has not ceased to increase. The rise in sexual tourism has become a serious problem in Estonia. Whilst integrated into the European Union, the Baltic states remain economically weaker than the E.U. average. Taking advantage of the relatively low cost of living and its geographic proximity, some pedophiles from western Europe come to Estonia to prey on vulnerable children. Whilst today this problem remains a marginal one, touching a small number of children, Estonia must nevertheless continue its efforts to prevent this type of sexual tourism.

In Estonia, the courts have the power to place children in state orphanages if they are deemed to be a victim of parental violence and are in real and immediate danger. The future prospects of these children however is grim. Each year, 1,200 additional children find themselves in this situation, with half of them being placed in foster families. These families however are not trained to receive abandoned children, as often their primary objective in fostering children is to receive money from the State. In this country, there is no longer a distinction between mistreated children and orphans. Today, the majority of the youth living in orphanages do actually have parents, yet the parents often have problems with addictions, which has lead them to violence. These children, the majority of which are Russian-speakers, are scattered throughout the 35 administrative structures of the country. With very few being adopted, these children fall under the care of the local powers at the age of 11. It is exceptionally rare that they will return to live with their biological families. These changes are destabilizing for a child that has already been through traumatic experiences. Many, lacking a chance at proper integration, will become delinquents, turn to drugs or become alcoholics.

The Children of Latvia

For some Latvian children access to healthcare is still difficult for financial and/or geographical reasons despite the introduction of measures to expand access to basic healthcare services. In addition, diseases such as tuberculosis and hepatitis are on the rise, with iron deficiency and malnutrition persisting. As a result, but also because of violence, car accidents, etc., the infant mortality rate is high (8%).

With regards to adolescents, there is a high number of pregnancies in young women from 15 to 17 years of age. It is also common for them to resort to abortion because they have not used a method of contraception. As for the mentally ill youth, they are often placed in specialized institutions because their parents do not have the financial capacity to care for them. Unfortunately, such youths are deprived of much of their freedom.

In Latvia, primary and secondary education is free and mandatory. In addition to traditional schools there are schools reserved for ethnic minorities where the language of instruction is not Latvian. However, any student who acquires an education in another language has to learn Latvian and pass exams in that language. The Committee on the Rights of the Child has noted a high truancy rate in schools in Latvia. This is a result of poverty, poorly functioning transport, the closure of schools in less populated areas, the lack of interest shown by parents in the education of their children and school bullying.

In Latvia, the idea of nondiscrimination has not been fully applied. Children of minorities, like the Roma, Russian speakers, children with disabilities, or those living in rural areas lack access to health and education facilities. Latvia is heavily criticized for discrimination against Russian speakers who represent a third of the country’s population. For example, in order to obtain Latvian citizenship, they must first have resided in Latvia for at least 16 years and pass a Latvian language test. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance has advised the Latvian authorities to ensure the improvement of the education system in Latvia for children of ethnic minorities in order to provide equal access to higher education and jobs. It also recommends finding a place in the curriculum for the teaching of minority languages and cultures.

Roma, also called Romany or Gypsies an ethnic group of traditionally itinerant people who originated in northern India but live in modern times worldwide, principally in Europe. Along with Russian speakers, the Roma are one of the most discriminated groups in Latvia. No action has been taken to facilitate the process of naturalization for children born in Latvia to non-citizens that came to the country after 1991. Special classes for Roma children have been created which reinforce the stigma of this minority group. The Council of Europe’s Anti-Racism Commission wants to close these classes and integrate the Roma children into mainstream classes.

Corporal punishment is officially prohibited by Latvian law. Yet, violence against children is widespread in the country. Corporal punishment continues to be practiced in schools and adequate sanctions have not been imposed. It is difficult to stop this humiliating practice and matters are not helped by the widely held view that acts of violence committed within the family realm are considered to be private matters. Many Latvian children are also confronted by sexual violence such as rape or abuse. 10% of children by the age of 15 have already suffered from sexual abuse Due to a lack of staff in youth accommodation and boarding schools, children often live in an isolated environment, unattended and at risk of being sexually exploited by their peers. It is common for children that have been victims of sexual abuse to do the same to others, with some parents abusing their children for the same reason.

According to the Dardedze Center (Latvian NGO fighting against violence towards children), the number of reported cases of child abuse and sexual violence has increased in recent years. However, this could be because the population has recognized the problem and thus denounces more and more cases. The main victims of such violence are the Roma, including children. Due to a fear of the police, Roma victims tend not to report such assaults. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance wants Latvian authorities to strengthen their efforts in managing this phenomenon. The skinheads and other right-wing groups have repeatedly been the perpetrators of racist violence against the Roma. The Commission advises Latvia to monitor their activities and implement initiatives in schools to educate children.

In Latvia, sexual exploitation against children is a problem proving difficult to eradicate. It is often denied or ignored in silence and many other factors contribute to its ongoing presence. Moss street children work in prostitution to support themselves and it is common for children living in orphanages to be sold, without qualm, for the purposes of sexual exploitation. Children are also known to be sold from poor families who do not have the means to provide adequately for their children and have little time for them. Such families and children tend to fall easily into the clutches of traffickers who use them for the purposes of sexual exploitation. The trafficking of children is officially considered to have been eradicated from the country, yet it seems that Latvia was counted among the countries of origin for child trafficking. Street children are the most plagued by this kind of trafficking due to their vulnerability. There is very little information and statistics, official or not, on child trafficking. According to a study published in 2009 by the European Union Agency on Fundamental Rights, in the course of the past 4 years the highest number of children sold per month was around 100. However, it is unclear whether this figure is truly reflective of the situation.

By law, immigrant minors that arrive in Latvia and are under 14 years old cannot be detained. However, a U.S. government report from 2010 condemned the conditions in which young boys were detained and revealed many must share their daily lives with adult prisoners and often for long periods.

Moreover, the detention conditions are inadequate and do not satisfy the fixed criteria of international law. The detained children do not have any link with the outside world, lack space, hot water, heating, and adequate sanitary facilities. They are isolated, without access to care or education, and are often deported without access to legal counsel. Children born into detention do not receive a birth certificate and remain unrecognized

Finally, the law does not favor family reunification. This is unfortunate for unaccompanied children and those who have been separated from their families, because it goes against their development and often deprives them of the right to the family.

Vincent Lyn

CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children

Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization

Economic & Social Council at United Nations

Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency

Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts

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Vincent Lyn

CEO-We Can Save Children. Director Creative Development-African Views Organization, ECOSOC at United Nations. International Human Rights Commission (IHRC)