Nobody’s Romani: Life Stories from a World of Cross-Border Begging

Portul din Batumi, Georgia
Author: Ana Sârbu, Ilie Gulca,
01/04/2021 18820

Maria (not her real name), 27 years old, is a citizen of Moldova living in Batumi, Georgia. The young woman says she is stuck in the city on the Black Sea coast, on the border with Turkey, because she could not obtain identity documents for her nine-year-old son.

“We pay a rent of 400 Lari [$150]. I’ve sold everything I had at home – my washing machine, my bed… Everything! ... I had to sell all we had to be able to buy food for my child. My fridge is empty”, she speaks about the problems she faces.

The coronavirus pandemic complicated her situation even further because it prevents her from coming to Moldova to somehow move things forward.

“In Moldova, I was told I needed a document from the Georgian authorities to be able to take my child [from Georgia]. And here, they tell me I need to get a document from Moldova. I feel confused, I have no idea what else I am supposed to do”, she says in a tired voice.

All of Maria’s problems started after she was raped as a minor by two young neighbors in Batumi. Together with her mother, she arrived in Georgia to escape from her aggressive father.

Ignored by the Authorities, Supported by Two Non-Governmental Organizations

She managed to obtain a passport, thanks to the support from Nana Nazarova, Chairperson of the People’s Harmonious Development Society, a non-governmental organization in Tbilisi protecting women and migrants’ rights, and Mariana Ianachevici, Chairperson of “AVE Copiii” Association for Child and Family Empowerment, a non-governmental organization based in Chisinau.

Currently, the girl says, the Georgian authorities “come running and check upon her” every month. “This is probably because some people sell their children as organ donors”, she mentions, explaining the strict control on behalf of the Georgian state authorities.

Maria avoids talking about her Moldovan compatriots in Batumi, saying she does not know any of them here.

Living in Camps of Eight or Nine

At the same time, many social workers in Georgia who have been contacted by the reporters do not know where the Romani people in their sectors arrive from. They generally say that ethnic Romani come from Azerbaijan and Moldova, yet there is no precise data on their origin.

However, Susana Chikvaidze, a social worker in Batumi, knows that there are about 25 ethnic Romani families from Moldova in her sector who live in camps of eight to ten persons each.

Some of them have left their children in the care of Georgian social workers, the woman specifies, and in other cases, the Georgian state intervened and took the minors under its protection. All of her colleagues’ efforts to send these women with children living in the street to Moldova have failed.

According to the data provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of the Republic of Moldova, in 2015–2020, only 30 citizens addressed the Embassy of the Republic of Moldova in Azerbaijan, also accredited for Georgia, asking for the mission’s assistance to return to Moldova.

According to Susana Chikvaidze, the Moldovan Romani in her sector are reluctant to return home

Either Unwilling to Go Back or Without Any ID

Most of the cases were hampered, on the one hand, by the women’s unwillingness to return to Moldova, and, on the other hand, because many of them generally did not have any identity documents or had expired documents.

In 2016–2020, the consular section of the Embassy of the Republic of Moldova to Baku issued 30 travel documents instead of valid identity documents that were absent or were declared lost: in 2016 – 3; in 2017 – 1; in 2018 – 16; in 2019 – 4; in 2020 – 6.

“The Georgian authorities requested that a travel document be issued in 2018. The other requests came from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Tbilisi or directly from the citizens in question.”

According to Susana Chikvaidze, the Moldovan Romani in her sector are reluctant to return home, regardless of whether they have any valid documents or any papers at all.

“In three cases, parents intend to take their children from the care of the Georgian state for one purpose: to make them beg. In one case, two women forced their kids to beg. In rainy and cold weather, their children were forced to sit in the street asking for alms”, Susana says, quoting the kids.

“Exploitation by begging brings good money. Batumi is a port city, and large cities have attracted children to live in the street”, Mariana Ianachevici says, specifying that the problem of children from Moldova in Georgian streets is an old issue that has been discussed for a long while in Tbilisi.

It should be mentioned that, as these minors have no identity documents, they cannot benefit from medical assistance or education and are basically left to sink or swim.

“In another case, a woman intentionally left her child in the care of the state. I asked the migration service. Initially, she agreed to go with her child to Moldova. But when it came to the stage of obtaining the documents, she suddenly disappeared. Now this woman’s child lives with an adoptive family”, Susana Chikvaidze adds.

No Ethnic Origin Statistics to Avoid Discrimination

The Agency for State Protection and Assistance for Victims of Human Trafficking in Georgia has informed us that it has no statistics on street children brought from Moldova.

The institution has told the reporters it does not intentionally collect statistical information on the ethnic origin of its program beneficiaries to avoid eventual discrimination.

“[Our] sub-program operates in Tbilisi, Rustavi and Kutaisi and has six mobile support teams, six day care centers and 6 to 24-hour shelters. Thus, 277 children have been registered for day care and 24-hour shelter services”, the Agency mentions in its response.

However, a study on street children in Georgia conducted with the support of UNICEF in 2018 mentions “an excessive presence of Romani children from Moldova”.

“Moldovan Romani in Permanent Motion”

“These children travel in groups to protect each other, to find places to spend the night, to create playgrounds, and to build friendship”, the study mentions without any references to ethnic origin.

According to the authors of the study, it is said among the children that the youngest ones are pushed to take part in all sorts of criminal activities and hand over the profits to the older ones.

In Georgia, 14 years old is the youngest age limit for liability under the law. Therefore, younger children are used in such activities to avoid administrative or criminal punishment.

“The Moldovan Romani people”, according to the study, are seen as a community which derives from the fact that some of them received identity documents in Moldova during the existence of the Soviet Union and were registered as “Moldovans.”

After Georgia declared its independence, this label persisted. Several children who spoke to the authors of the research called themselves “Moldovans” or “Gypsies”.

Other youngsters in this subgroup mentioned their own language as “Romani”. In Georgia, “Moldovans/Moldovan Romani” are regarded as people who earn their living by being in permanent motion, the authors of the study emphasize.

Abkhazia as a Destination for the Romani from Soroca

Mariana Ianachevici, Chairperson of “AVE Copiii” Association for Child and Family Empowerment in Chisinau, mentions two groups of ethnic Romani in Georgia: the Romani who left in the Soviet times, did not legalize their presence in the Georgian territory and did not file their documents to obtain Georgian citizenship, and the Romani settled in Georgia after the proclamation of its independence.

Mariana Ianachevici, chairperson of “AVE Copiii” Association for Child and Family Empowerment in Chisinau

According to Mariana Ianachevici, the exploitation of children by begging is an old issue for the Republic of Moldova.

“During my work, I have assisted in repatriating several children exploited for begging in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, and Odessa. Among them, we had children of the Romani ethnicity from Soroca, Calarasi, Nisporeni and Stefan-Voda. They had left Moldova about a year or two before. Others were born in the Russian Federation, while their mothers were citizens of the Republic of Moldova”, she mentions, specifying that trafficking in children is a phenomenon difficult to prove.

Soroca is a town in the north of Moldova, with a Romani community of about 4,000 persons. |In Soroca, vehicles with Georgian license plates parked in front of enormous houses in the “Gypsy Hill” area are a common sight.

The problem of young women returning from abroad with children, with white passports (travel documents), including those from Georgia, is a very common issue, according to Steliana Imanverdieva, community mediator. According to the mediator’s estimates, approximately 300-400 cases of girls arriving from Georgia and Azerbaijan without any identity documents were registered in the locality.

Girls go abroad, give birth to their children there, come to Moldova, and need birth certificates. There was a case like that in Abkhazia, the Georgian separatist republic.

“Most of those who arrive from there do not obtain a birth certificate because it is an unknown region. I know a girl who knocked on every door of every authority. She was issued a birth certificate only after the DNA test. The entire procedure costs 7,000 lei”.

The whole problem of ethnic Romani in Georgia, according to Artur Cerari, the leader of the Romani community, is that Moldova does not have a consular section there, and travelling to Baku is possible only for those who have enough money and can speak in a convincing manner.

“Why not simplify this whole thing? They could open a consulate or do something not to make people come back again and spend more money. They don’t even have such resources. They have to stay where they are... They live like bums, without any papers…”, the leader says, adding that he knows nothing about Romani children from Moldova in the streets of Georgia.

Artur Cerari, the leader of the Romani community in Soroca

He says ethnic Romani live by trade in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, etc., especially in the regions where traditional trade is still practiced and e-commerce is less widespread. But all of them obtain their travel documents through the Embassy of Moldova in Moscow.

“Someone sends a power of attorney from Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan, the one with the power of attorney arrives at the embassy (SIC!) and delegates someone who gives them a white passport, so that they could return to the country”, Cerari says.

Begging as a Lifestyle and a Business

Alexei Preda, a community mediator from Otaci, a locality in the north of Moldova and the home of approximately 4,000 Romani, had worked in Georgia about four or five years ago (in 2015–2016). In fact, in Otaci, there are as many vehicles with Georgian license plates as in Soroca.

He claims that the ethnic Romani people from Moldova are attracted to Georgia because of its “good” geographical location; they prefer going to Batumi and Tbilisi. “First and foremost, it’s close to Azerbaijan and Russia”, he explains their choice of Georgia.

To solve the problem of departed families, Alexei emphasizes, we have to find out what they really want, and whether they actually intend to come home. “If they don’t want to come home, they should obtain their papers there. If they are eager to get back to Moldova, we have to issue passports to them”.

Street children, according to the community mediator from Otaci, are a “complicated issue”. “Many families prefer [begging] not because they have no other choice. They regard begging as their core business, no matter how sorrowful or humiliating”.

“Parents are always to blame if their children find themselves in the streets. You can go out to the center (of Otaci) and see some Romani families, begging together with their kids… Well-off Romani who have money and can afford clothes and other things… In 15 minutes, they are all wearing rags again.”

If someone in Otaci has no documents, this is “their conscious choice”, the community mediator points out. “They believe they do not need any IDs”.

Alexei Preda, a community mediator from Otaci

How Mothers with Minor Children Travel

One thing that determines women with minor children to travel abroad is the Romani tradition of not registering their marriages officially. Therefore, from the legal point of view, children have only mothers in their communities.

“After the first night of love a girl becomes a woman, and her lover becomes her husband. That’s it! A birth certificate is required to obtain identity documents. 80% of the Romani residents of Otaci do not register their marriages”, Alexei Preda says.

“Therefore, every child takes the mother’s last name. No one pays attention to this detail. I know this child is mine and everyone else knows this is my child. There are about 4,000 Romani in Otaci, and most of them have the same last name, there being about four or five of these”, he adds.

Consequently, women do not need the consent of their children’s fathers to travel abroad.

The Itinerary to Batumi

One can travel from Moldova to Georgia by the ferry from Chernomorsk to Batumi. “This is apparently a fairly cheap way, but at the same time it is a way to transport people illegally”, Mariana Ianachevici suspects, specifying that the Port of Odessa is an area where groups of Romani are seen very frequently, especially in summer.

Nana Nazarova, Chairperson of the People’s Harmonious Development Society in Tbilisi which protects women and migrants’ rights, considers the shipping route from Odessa to Batumi to be the most convenient way to get to Batumi.

Tatiana Semikop, Chairperson of “Faith, Hope, and Love” Non-Governmental Organization in Odessa

Representatives of the Chernomorsk-Batumi ferry administration have told the reporters that traveling to Batumi costs $180-190. “Even though it costs less than an air flight, it is not so cheap, anyway”, one of them says, mentioning that he has not noticed a Romani “pilgrimage” by ferry yet.

Although Tatiana Semikop, Chairperson of “Faith, Hope, and Love” Non-Governmental Organization in Odessa, has not noticed a massive travel of Romani mothers with children from Odessa to Batumi, she has told us that some people attempt to obtain documents for ethnic Romani from Moldova from her association for a fee, in order to legalize their stay in Odessa region.

“Most of these people work at the 7th Kilometer market area”, Tatiana Semikop says, adding that she avoids any discussion with such persons.

The Romani leader from Soroca has declared that Odessa is no longer a destination for the Romani who practice trade because the 7th Kilometer market is not as attractive as it used to be.

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