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Orphanages shut down

EU pressure forces Romania to act but squalid conditions remain in Bulgaria. Yojana Sharma reports

Tough membership conditions set by the European Union have forced the closure of half of Romania's notorious communist-era orphanages.

But failure to apply similar pressure on neighbouring Bulgaria has left tens of thousands of children living in squalid con-ditions without access to good-quality education.

There was a huge outcry in the West when details of mentally-ill children chained to filthy beds in oppressive institutions were revealed after the fall of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. Many of the orphans had developed physical and mental problems due to neglect, and some had bedsores the equivalent of third-degree burns.

Closure of the 600 institutions was made a condition for Romania's entry to the EU on January 1, 2007. The EU is to decide on May 16 whether Romania and Bulgaria have done enough to join on that date or whether accession must be postponed until 2008.

"There are thousands of Bulgarian children in circumstances similar to Romanian children in 1999," said Emma Nicholson, the MEP who reports on Romania for the EU. "It should not be possible for a country with children in such conditions to be a member."

"De-institutionalisation" was a condition of membership for Romania but not its neighbour. Bulgaria has 25,000 children in institutions. Fewer than 2 per cent are genuine orphans. The figure has been the same for four years, according to the aid agency Save the Children.

"These children are segregated from society and denied access to quality education or in many cases any education at all," according to a report by Save the Children Bulgaria for the EU. About 13,000 children, mainly Roma, are also segregated in so called "auxiliary" schools for "slight mental disorders" which can include dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyspraxia.

"It is an alarmingly high figure," said Desislava Koleva, of Save the Children in Sofia.

Many children sent to auxiliary schools are not given any psychological assessments. Some teachers put children forward for the auxiliary schools if they are unruly or have problems learning.

The aid agency said many parents want to get their children into the schools, many of which board pupils, so that they can be taken care of for free, and that parents train children to fool the authorities into thinking they have a "mental disorder".

A pilot programme in Stan, six hours from Sofia, transfers children from the village auxiliary school to a nearby mainstream school, but progress remains limited, Save the Children said.

Communist-era attitudes that the state must take care of children remain widely prevalent.

The situation of auxiliary schools mirrors that in many Romanian institutions some years ago. It was only in 2002 that a proper assessment was done of all children in institutions and 21,000 were reclassified as not disabled.

"They could go immediately to normal schools," said Baroness Nicholson.

But Bulgaria wants to avoid the speed with which Romanian institutions were shut down. Ms Koleva said: "It must be according to the needs of the children and the availability of alternatives, not according to an EU timetable."

In some cases, Romanian children ended up on the streets. One - third of Romanian street children are illiterate and 40 per cent struggle to read and write.

The estimated number of street children has halved since 2000 when it was 3,000. Since 2002, about 50,000 Romanian children have been transferred to foster care, reintegrated with their families or are in "social homes" of small groups of children with a housemother or father.

Yet 30,000 Romanian children remain in institutions. Lady Nicholson said removing so many from institutions had separated them from the huge trafficking organisations that operate in the country. "Romania is a major source of trafficking globally, so the struggle to keep these children safe is monumental."

She said child trafficking mushroomed in Romania when corrupt officials held on to money sent by well-wishers from the West, shocked by images of conditions in the orphanages, and collaborated with organised crime.

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