(Photo source) I am overwhelmed having just watched THIS superb Panorama documentary, "Britain's Child Beggars" on BBC World, dated 19th October - a very moving, terribly sad report. Bravo Panorama and bravo John Sweeney for such excellent journalism and showing, for once, this problem from more than one side. The documentary says nothing new, in fact, but the very fact that it portrays the problem of child trafficking and forced begging so clearly from several aspects IS something new and good to see.
Sweeney meets some of the many Romanian Gypsy children who spend long days and cold nights begging on the streets of London. Amongst them, we follow 'Alice', a four-year-old child (pictured above), forced to beg for hours on end, day in, day out. 'Alice' is just one of Britain's Gypsy child beggars, and she can earn hundreds of pounds a day.
(Photo source) This special Panorama investigation uncovers the truth about these children. Reporter Sweeney tracks down the begging gangs living in Slough and Ilford to luxury homes in Fetesti and Tandarei, where he confronts the adults forcing the children to beg whilst they have BMWs parked in front of their palaces. He is yelled at by Ion Rostas's pretty darn scarey wife who threatens to break his camera and smash his head in. But he insists. Why, he asks, do you make these children beg for a living? No answer. Stela Rostas is yelling too loudly. He is confronted with denials, abuse and lies...
The programme raises the question of responsibility. Whose responsibility is it to stop this from happening, to protect these children? Indeed, the British authorities are not doing enough - far from it. But the Romanian government is doing less than nothing.
The solution to stop this dreadful child abuse on the streets of London, at least, says one man from the Rroma community, is to educate, and give work opportunities. He is sure that many want to work but cannot due to the UK labour laws. In the UK, Romanians and Bulgarians have no right to work at all and can only get benefits when they have worked for a year, thus should not be eligible. So then, how is it possible for a man to be jailed right this moment for benefit fraud for 4 children who are not his and a mother who has been dead for years? Exploitation, abuse of justice, law and democracy. And meanwhile, hundreds (if not thousands) of children like 'Alice' and 'Lou' are out there from the age of two and a half, ie. as soon as they can walk, forced to beg: Paddington, Marble Arch, Earl's Court, Regent's Park... no school, no future and childhoods lost forever...
Please see THIS post from the Panorama site which accompanies the documentary:
You can see them on London's Oxford Street - day in, day out - young children begging.
For months, Panorama filmed them as they worked the streets during last winter's snow, sleet and rain. The footage - more than 100 hours of it - is like watching Oliver Twist for the 21st Century.
One little girl we followed, who we called "Alice", looked to be no more than four-years-old, yet she was experienced in begging; by turns, innocent, desperate, persistent, wheedling.
The little girl, wearing a white headscarf, used a telephone box as a toilet and scavenged for food from McDonalds as she begged in all weathers.
One restaurant owner in the area said that some child beggars make £500 a day. For her part, Alice handed every last penny to a minder, a young woman who looked to be in her late teens or early 20s.
Outside the Regent's Park Mosque, we filmed a team of women controlling several children, including a little boy of four, who we called "Lou".
They targeted worshippers from the mosque as they left Friday prayers.
We tracked "Lou" and his handlers as they took the bus home to a rented house in Ilford in Essex where a BMW X5 sat in the drive.
Over the course of almost a year, all of the child-begging teams working the streets of London which were investigated by Panorama turned out to be Gypsies from Romania.
Despite wearing modest clothing and headscarves and targeting the mosque and areas popular with tourists from the Gulf states, none were Muslim.
This is modern day slavery. How does a four-year-old child consent to be exploited?
Bernie Gravett, former Met Police Supt
Gypsies - also known as Roma - are Europe's largest ethnic minority, and the poorest. Racism against them in Romania and across Europe is rife.
Christine Beddoe, UK director of ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking), said forcing them to work the streets of London is denying them their childhood.
"It means that they are denied an education, they'll have nutrition issues, health issues," she said. "They'll also grow up believing that this is the only way, or the normal way, of earning a living."
In Britain, the police often stop the begging teams on the streets, but generally just take their details and let them go. Police say they fear that poverty has made Gypsies vulnerable to exploitation from criminal gangs within their own community.
They say they are working hard to combat the gangs driving the child begging business in Britain.
Former Metropolitan Police Supt Bernie Gravett led Operation Golf, which targeted the people behind the child beggars.
"This is modern day slavery. How does a four-year-old child consent to be exploited? They won't know that it's criminal to beg on the streets of the UK. They are kids."
Mr Gravett and his colleague Ch Insp Colin Carswell took part in a joint British-Romanian police operation, which arrested 26 alleged child traffickers from Tanderei in the south of Romania.
The accused, who were imprisoned for months but have since been released, denied any wrong-doing. The case continues as two judges in Romania have sent the case back to the prosecution but in the meantime the accused cannot leave the country.
In Britain, the police disrupted the gangs by targeting them for benefit fraud. Nine people, eight of them Romanian Gypsies, went to prison earlier this year for a total of 10 years for cheating £800,000 worth of benefits.
Romanians are not ordinarily entitled to UK state benefits, but police say that crime gangs have proved adept at getting around the rules using forged documents.
FIND OUT MORE
John Sweeney presents Panorama: Britain's Child Beggars
BBC One, Wednesday, 19 October at 9pm then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer
Ch Insp Carswell said one gang that was running children as beggars said the gang had pegged the earning potential of a single child in London at close to £100,000 a year between begging, stealing and being used for benefit fraud.
In the town of Tanderei, which is dotted with luxury villas, some of which police suspect have been paid for with the money begged on the streets of Europe, I met Petrica Dragusin, one of the men arrested on suspicion of child trafficking in the sweep in Romania as part of Operation Golf.
He told me bluntly that his entire town knows how to work Britain's benefit system.
"The blame is with the British state, which gives them a lot of money. They have lots of children, seven, eight or 10 children, and if they have many children they build a villa."
The sums he cites are staggering.
"Some collect £10,000, £12,000, £13,000 a month - they have three or four of five sets of benefits."
At the house in Ilford where we tracked "Lou" from his days spent begging near the Regent's Park Mosque, we filmed a series of children and adults coming and going, among them Ioan Rostas, his wife Stela and their daughter, Vandana, who we have been told has been investigated for benefit fraud.
We then tracked the Rostas family back to Huedin in the north of Romania, where local land registry documents show that Ioan Rostas owns two houses, a luxury villa on the main road and a smaller house on a sidestreet.
It was outside the smaller home that we encountered the same BMW X5 that has been parked outside the family's rented home in Ilford.
We also spotted little "Lou" at home in Romania.
And the little girl we called "Alice"?
Some of those filmed denied accusations of begging in London
From Oxford Street, we tracked her and her minder as they headed to Paddington station to catch a commuter train home after a long day on the streets of London. They lived in a rented home in Slough.
We found that her young minder was in fact her mother, Denisa Mazarache, and that they came from Fetesti in southern Romania.
In Fetesti, I knocked on the door of Denisa Mazarache's registered address, a recently built bungalow with a large front garden - not a luxury villa, but a significant improvement on the wooden shacks that the poorest of Romania's Gypsies are living in.
A man at the house angrily denied all knowledge of Denisa Mazarache.
At another house owned by a family member, I met Denisa herself.
She spoke in English and admitted to having begged in London: "I'm sorry. Because I don't have money to travel, to take one ticket, food."
I asked her about "Alice" and she said that she was going to nursery. "My children go to school and I've got a job."
She said they had left London a year ago and was no longer begging. But she was lying, we had filmed her less than two months earlier, begging on London's streets.
Panorama: Britain's Child Beggars, BBC One, Wednesday, 19 October at 2100BST then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer .