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INVISIBLE CHILDREN

Gunel Safarova

She didn’t look into the faces of people in the room. She kept massaging her left knee. Her hair was cut poorly. There were a lot of wounds and scars on her hands and face. She didn’t answer any questions. She even didn’t know her age. She only said her name -- Shalala. She was in Baku at the Children Union NGO, in a small and dark room, and she was looking for help.

Her mother Khalida says her own mother and sister make her beg on the street. If she cannot get enough money, they beat her. Khalida is 24n and a Roma. She has been married twice. She has two children from the first marriage and one from the second. Shalala is her oldest child. Her brother, Ismail, is six years old. “When we split up, my husband wouldn’t let me take my children with me. They have been living with their relatives on their father’s side,” says Khalida.

Khalida married her first husband when she was 14, which was illegal because according to Azerbaijan family laws, people younger than 18 years old cannot marry. As a result, her children didn’t get documents until their father died. “My husband’s family wanted to get a pension,” says Khalida. According to the Labor Code of Azerbaijan, when a father dies and he has little children, the children can receive a percentage of their father’s salary as a pension.

Khalida says her late husband’s family takes good care of Ismail because he is a boy. “Our families are very cruel to girls,” says Khalida. “From childhood they make it difficult, so we will be ready for marriage. My parents didn’t force me to beg, but my first husband’s family did.

“Yesterday her aunt beat Shalala with a piece of wood. Her knees and shoulder bruised. And they pushed a hot spoon into her hands. She couldn’t stay there and ran away to me.”

Khalida says Roma families often do not get documents for their children. Most mothers don’t even give birth to children at hospitals. They give birth at home, because the hospital services are too expensive. “One of my relatives has 11 children and she doesn’t even know the dates of birth of her children,” Khalida smiles.

According to Azeri legislation, people are divided into three groups: Azerbaijani citizens, foreigners, and persons without citizenship. Documents include the state registration of persons. If there is no registration paper, it means the person is physically present, but legally he (she) does not exist. The absence of documents deprive persons of education, health care services, freedom of movement within and outside the country, marriage, taking governmental positions, the right to elect and be elected, and some other privileges.

Azerbaijan Children Union (ACU) lawyer Jabbar Jabbarov says there have always been problems with Roma children. He thinks it will continue until the government does something to make sure everyone has documents.

Roma woman usually give birth to their children at home, not in hospitals. According to Jabbarov, everyone had USSR ID cards until the Soviet Union collapsed. The new Azerbaijan government announced persons who wanted to be Azerbaijani citizens had one year to get it.

“In Azerbaijan there are many Roma families in regions. There is no awareness in these families. They keep living according to their traditions. The Government must give citizenship amnesty to this ethnic group,” says Jabbarov.

Jabbarov says Roma children are potential victims of human trafficking. As they don’t have documents, officially they don’t exist. The state cannot search for them if something happens to them. “Just for these reasons, they need documents,” he said.

Alovsat Aliyev, director of the Azerbaijan Migration Center, says every person of any ethnic group who is born in the country is legally a citizen. “We hold more than 300 court cases every year to get documents for people, and almost all of them are provided,” Aliyev said. “The state wouldn’t discriminate against anyone because of their ethnicity.”

 

Aliyev says his organization always tries to keep the government informed about these children. “We plan to increase public awareness in the regions and involve all state bodies which deal with the issue,” he said.

 

The State Statistical Committee has no exact numbers about how many gypsy children live in the country without documents.

MP Musa Guliyev states that police are registering beggar children, and warning their parents.

But the State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs claim that until this moment, they have no applications from Roma families seeking citizenship for their children.