Tbilisi, 18 April 2016
Good afternoon and thank you for coming.
I would like to thank the Government of Georgia for the invitation extended to me to undertake a visit to the country from 11 to 18 of April 2016.
The objective of my visit was to assess the scope of sale and exploitation of children in the country as well as the measures adopted by the authorities to prevent and combat the phenomena, and to assist in the care, recovery and reintegration of child victims.
During my eight day visit I have met with multiple stakeholders, including children and youth, in Tbilisi, Tserovani, Rustavi and Batumi. I met with high-level representatives of numerous ministries such as the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Interior Affairs, the Ministry of Corrections, and the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons, the Assistant to the Prime Minister on Human Rights and Gender Equality Issues, the President of the Supreme Court, the Deputy Chief Prosecutor, members of Parliament, representatives of the Public Defender’s Office, child rights and protection NGOs, the Youth Council of the National Child and Youth Coalition, teenagers living in the IDP settlement of Tserovani, the mayor, judges of the city court and representatives of the special anti-trafficking unit of Batumi, as well as the UN Country Team and diplomats.
I also visited two small group homes, one shelter for mothers and children at risk of separation or abandonment, one shelter for children living and/or working on the street, and an institution for children run by the Church.
I would like to express my regret for not having been able to evaluate the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
I am grateful to the Government for the collaboration before and during the visit. To everyone who met with me, I want to express my gratitude for their readiness to engage in an open dialogue to improve the situation of children at risk and child victims of neglect, abuse, violence and exploitation. I also wish to express my gratitude to the UN Country Team for their support and assistance.
Positive steps and developments
Georgia has made considerable progress in the last decade in order to better protect children from abuse, violence and exploitation.
Since 2005 it has adopted various legislative, institutional and policy measures to promote the deinstitutionalisation of children. In this context, all but two State-run orphanages have been closed down, and alternative care has been strengthened through the establishment of small group homes and foster care. Support to families in vulnerable socio-economic situations has also been made available through monetary social allowances. All these measures are aimed at shifting the focus towards ensuring the right to children to a family environment and preventing separation as means to promote the well-being and best interests of the child.
Since 2012 Georgia has also stepped up efforts to combat trafficking in human beings, in particular children, with amendments to the Law on Combating Trafficking in Persons to include provisions based on the best interests of the child. Detection, investigation and prosecution of trafficking offences have improved thanks to the coordinated efforts deployed by the Interagency Council to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings, with special units in Tbilisi and Batumi. In addition, the State Fund for the Protection and Assistance of Victims of Human Trafficking provides immediate support services, such as legal assistance, medical and psychological support, shelter and compensation to victims of trafficking and their dependents.
A more recent positive development is the entry into force on the 1st of January 2016 of the Juvenile Justice Code, which brings national legislation concerning children in conflict with the law and child victims and witnesses closer to international child rights norms and standards. In particular, the Juvenile Justice Code favours a restorative justice for children through the diversion from the criminal justice system to mediation and the adoption of the most lenient measures whenever possible, through alternative sanctions. The Juvenile Justice Code also introduces numerous child-sensitive measures, such as an individualised approach, the protection of the private life of children, and the appointment of a legal representative during judicial proceedings.
Despite these positive measures and developments, there remain various issues of concern that Georgia must tackle in a comprehensive manner as a matter of priority in order to effectively prevent and combat the sale and exploitation of children.
Children living and/or working on the street
Despite the lack of comprehensive studies and reliable data on the number and background of children living and/or working on the street in the country, all my interlocutors acknowledged that this phenomenon is a major issue of concern. Moreover, there is a general agreement that this is a complex problem that cannot be tackled only through law enforcement but requires coordinated responses, including at the preventive level.
During my visit I took note of various immediate responses adopted by the authorities since 2014 to detect and assist children living and/or working on the street, such as the deployment of multidisciplinary mobile teams to reach out to children, and the referral to crisis intervention centres and operational transition centres, where they can stay up to six months. Unfortunately these centres are only available in the main cities (Tbilisi and Kutaisi), while little is known about the situation of children living and/or working on the street in other parts of the country, where access to specialised State-run support services for them is non-existent.
Stakeholders concerned indicated that the identification of these children is problematic since many of them lack identity documents, which denies them access to services. Moreover, lack of documents and registration renders them invisible and vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including forced begging and sexual exploitation. In this respect, I welcome the inclusion of provisions in the new draft Law on Adoption and Foster Care to expand the definition of abandoned children and eliminate the requirement of identity documents to access support services. I urge authorities concerned to pass this law as a matter of priority.
I also call on the various authorities concerned to shift from the current fragmented and short-term response to the phenomenon, to implement a comprehensive system to detect and identify children (e.g. through the establishment of child-friendly reporting and complaint mechanisms, and strengthening cooperation between law enforcement and care givers), and refer them to child-centred and rights-based care, recovery and reintegration programmes, to provide not only immediate support services, but also medium and long term support (i.e. permanent housing, long-term psycho-social support, education, vocational training and life skills) that leads to durable solutions and meets the needs of children.
More importantly, this systemic approach must incorporate prevention measures which tackle the root causes of the phenomena (e.g. supporting families in vulnerable situations with social benefits, job counselling and employment programs, assisting them with childcare services and parenting skills), and conducting awareness-raising and education programmes targeted at parents, teachers, students and society at large to break the silence towards this phenomenon, and address stigma and discrimination against children living and/or working on the street.
Children placed in institutions
Despite the deinstitutionalisation process initiated more than a decade ago, which involved the closing down of large-scale residential child care institutions run by the State, there still remain two State-run orphanages, which accommodate mainly children with disabilities. In this regard, I urge national authorities to develop a strategy to assess and reintegrate these children into their families and communities, and facilitate the living and inclusion in the community of children with disabilities through the development of support services that cater to their needs.
There are also a considerable number of large-scale residential institutions run by third parties such as local governments, religious organisations and private individuals, which were not affected by the deinstitutionalisation process but were created in parallel to it. Moreover, these institutions are not subjected to child care regulations and standards, and escape the control and monitoring of the State. While I welcome discussions initiated by the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Affairs with religious organisations to address these deficiencies, I strongly encourage national authorities to adopt a new plan of action on child care system reform to fully accomplish the deinstitutionalisation process. The plan of action should include the full regulation and monitoring of institutions run by third parties, the training of staff on child-sensitive provision of care which is compliant with international child rights norms and standards, and the transition towards the provision of alternative care and support to families.
The new phase of the deinstitutionalisation process must be based on a comprehensive assessment of gap and challenges, and lessons learned from the previous process. It must also adopt a child-centred approach by ensuring, among others, the right of the child to be heard throughout the process.
The new plan of action should incorporate the establishment of child-friendly complaint and reporting mechanisms in all child care settings for cases of child abuse and violence, and the training of care takers to effectively detect and refer these cases. The new plan of action must strengthen the monitoring capacities of the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Affairs, including in respect of the existing small group homes and foster care, to cover all child-care settings, through the allocation or more staff, training and resources.
The new plan of action should also include the adoption of specific regulations and standards applicable to day care centres and their monitoring.
This new phase of the deinstitutionalisation process must also incorporate assistance and support measures for care leavers, namely those beneficiaries who leave child care settings after turning 18. In particular, the new plan of action should include measures to facilitate their access to housing, education and livelihoods. The plan of action must also include awareness-raising campaigns targeted at society at large and conducted in educational settings to combat stigmatisation and discrimination against care-leavers.
In order to succeed, new strategies aimed at an effective accomplishment of the deinstitutionalisation process must prioritise the provision of economic and social support to families in vulnerable settings and families with children with disabilities, as a means to prevent that their children end up in child care settings. Indeed, most of the children in institutional settings and foster care come from families in socio-economic hardship. The State must pay more attention to root causes and risks factors, invest in preventive measures, providing more support to these families and life options to their children.
International commercial surrogacy
I am concerned about the practice of surrogacy in Georgia in so far as it relates to the rights and best interests of children and other vulnerable parties who may be involved in surrogacy arrangements. In particular, I am concerned about the practice of international commercial surrogacy, as Georgia is one of the few countries providing these arrangements to foreign commissioning parents, without regulation that protects the rights and best interests of children born through these arrangements and the rights of women acting as surrogates.
Under national legislation relating to surrogacy, there is no focus on protecting vulnerable parties involved in surrogacy arrangements. The balance which has been struck seems to be in favour of commissioning parents, and subordinates the rights of women acting as surrogates, placing them at risk of exploitation. Moreover, the law is silent on how the child is to be protected when born through international commercial surrogacy, and how the best interests of the child are to be protected. This places children at risk of being exploited, having a number of their rights violated (such as their rights to identity, nationality and health), and at risk of being affected by decisions which are not in their best interests.
Consequently, I call on the national authorities to adopt legislation on surrogacy based on the best interests of the child and their protection from abuse and exploitation. The regulatory framework governing the practice of surrogacy, including international commercial surrogacy to foreign citizens, must establish safeguards against the sale of children and ensure the protection of children born in Georgia as a result of surrogacy arrangements. Such legislation must set up a regulatory system of clinics and their practices in relation to surrogacy and associated practices, and ensure that actions and decisions are consistent with the rights and best interests of the child.
Other issues of concern
Apart from these main issues of concern, cases of child marriage and adoption processes which are not compliant with international norms and standards have been brought to my attention during my visit.
In respect to child marriage, the Government must step up efforts to fully implement legislation that prohibits child marriage, not only through penalisation but also prevention measures. In particular, I encourage authorities concerned to reach out to communities in which child marriage persists, and engage with them in a culture-sensitive dialogue, involving community and religious leaders to guide communities in protecting children against all forms of abuse, violence and exploitation.
As for adoption, I reiterate my call on the national authorities to pass as a matter of priority the new draft Law on Adoption and Foster Care to bring current legislation in line with international norms and standards. In particular, I welcome the inclusion of provisions to prohibit direct adoptions, introduce mandatory training for adoptive and foster parents, require the Social Services Agency to assess the best interests of the child, to select the best-suited adoptive parents through a matching process, and to take into consideration the views of the child whenever possible. In the context of intercountry adoption, in order to avoid risks of trafficking, sale and abduction of children, all adoption procedures must be carried out between the competent central authorities of the States concerned. In this regard, I also welcome the inclusion in the draft law of criteria and requirements for the accreditation of foreign agencies.
Prevention at the core of an effective national child protection system
In order to combat effectively the sale and exploitation of children, Georgia must strengthen its national child protection system through the adoption and implementation of comprehensive prevention strategies. These prevention strategies must include the following actions:
- Improve the knowledge and understanding of different forms of exploitation and sale of children in Georgia, through conducting studies on risk factors and how they affect vulnerability of children, and collecting and analysing comprehensive, reliable disaggregated data on different forms of abuse, violence and exploitation of children;
- Establish a comprehensive and clear legal framework, through inter alia the criminalisation of possession of child abuse material, the criminalisation of sexual and labour exploitation of children as separate offences, and the regulation of surrogacy arrangements;
- Establish child-friendly complaint and reporting mechanisms, including hotlines, which are easily accessible to children, including children with disabilities, children belonging to minorities, and children in IDP settlements;
- Ensure that vulnerable children are identified early and have an adequate standard of living; and strengthen their families offering quality services, parenting support and social protection so that they may fulfil their child-rearing responsibilities;
- Involve and empower children and youth, giving them the opportunity to have their views heard and their proposals taken into consideration in prevention strategies;
- Enhance corporate social responsibility involving internet service and content providers, telecommunications, the travel and tourism industries and the media in order to strengthen child safety online and to prevent child sexual exploitation in travel and tourism;
- Establish regular assessments and monitoring in order to assess the impact of preventive interventions and ensure that measures contribute to reducing the exposure of children to risk and victimization;
- Conduct awareness raising and education campaigns among children, families and communities, including in rural and remote areas, on the rights of the child, gender equality, and sexual and reproductive health.
Throughout my visit I have noticed that Georgia has an open and vibrant society which is eager to improve the situation of children in the country by meeting its obligations under international human rights instruments. The numerous interlocutors that I have met have acknowledged the existence of gaps and challenges in relation to the protection of children, but most importantly, they have expressed the willingness to address them.
Solutions to these problems must be found in consultation with children and youth. As a young care-leaver told me, “We are the force that can change things; otherwise there will be a lost generation.”
I thank you for your attention and will be pleased to answer any questions you may have.