Roma children trafficked into life of crime across Europe

3 September 2009

Romanian Roma children are being trafficked across Europe to become beggars and thieves, according to the BBC’s One World (shown 2 September 2009).

The programme revealed Children as young as 10 years old forced by their parents and other members of their community to pick pockets, steal from cash machines and beg on the streets.

The BBC programme shows one Roma girl hit by an adult controller for not making enough money from stealing and begging during a 10 hour shift on the streets of Madrid, Spain.

Madrid Police say that 95% of children under the age of 14 caught stealing on the streets are Romanian Roma. Spanish law dictates that children under the age of 14 are immune from prosecution.

Many of the children involved in criminal activity in Madrid came from a Roma camp 10 miles from the city centre. The camp was home to 242 Roma families, including 500 children, though according to one resident less than 150 attend school. The camp, which is overrun with rats, lacks basic amenities including in many cases, running water and electricity.

The programme also lifts the lid on examples of underage girls married at the Madrid Roma camp, which breaks Spanish law. Many Roma parents are paid a ‘bride-price’ before agreeing to the marriage of a daughter.

A Roma man told the BBC that one recently married 13-year-old girl cost 7,000 euros and that the high price reflected her earning potential as a thief. He explained she would be expected to pay back the cost of her bride-price through illicit earnings but estimated that she would manage this in only two weeks.

In Milan, Italy, the police launched a major investigation into the rise of pick pocketing in the city in 2007, which revealed that a criminal gang were controlling 50 Roma children operating as thieves around the city’s central station.

The Milan police estimated that a single child was earning around 400 euros a day from stealing. This meant that the 50 children were earning around 600,000 euros a month for their criminal gang bosses who were investing the profits back in Romania.

Footage of the police raid on a Roma camp on the outskirts of Milan carried out as part of the criminal investigation uncovered several children that had been locked up in shacks by their controllers.

The police operation led to the jailing of 26 Romanians of up to 14 years for enslaving children. The BBC found one of the children rescued during the police raid remained active as thief on the streets of Milan two years later. The child operated under the control of a young adult supervisor.

Roma suffer discrimination and a lack of job opportunities in Romania and many have been lured by promises of the opportunity to make good money in richer European countries. However, rather than earning enough money to build a house in Romania, many find themselves in debt bondage unable to pay off the costs of their transport.

One Roma man explained that he was persuaded to work as a beggar in Spain but once he arrived was forced to hand over all his earnings to his trafficker.

After two months the Roma man escaped back to Romania but was pursued by his trafficker and forced to make repayments out of his social security benefits for another 7 years until his debt was fully paid.