Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Child Workers Harassed, Not Helped by Police

Police officers accused of exploiting underage labour ban to extract bribes.
By Timur Toktonaliev
  • Containers at the giant Dordoi market outside the Kyrgyz capital. (Photo: Centre for the Protection of Children, Kyrgyzstan)
    Containers at the giant Dordoi market outside the Kyrgyz capital. (Photo: Centre for the Protection of Children, Kyrgyzstan)

At the sprawling Dordoi market outside the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, 14-year old Jenish looked nervously over his shoulder as he collected discarded cardboard boxes to sell for a few dollars.

He was looking out for the police, since he has already been locked up twice at the Juvenile Crime Prevention Centre, last year and again this February.

“They grabbed me without any warning or any explanation when I was picking up boxes,” Jenish (not his real name) told IWPR. ‘There were five or six boys like me in the van they took me to. They drove us to a building with metal bars on the windows and kept us there for two days. They forced me to sweep and mop the floors and fetch water.”

Jenish’s mother Venera said that when she came to the detention centre last February, she was asked for the equivalent of ten US dollars as a bribe to secure his release. After she brought Jenish home, she said, he was ill for a week and was left traumatised by the experience. He used to draw the mountains outside Bishkek in his spare time, but now he paints figures of policemen.

Venera, a single mother, works at the market herself but does not earn enough as a trader to support Jenish and his two sisters. So after school each day, her son goes to the Dordoi market to collect boxes and sell them to a recycling centre, earning about four dollars for five hours work.

Jenish told IWPR that he stayed at home for a while after his most recent detention but eventually returned to the market, although he remains constantly on the lookout.

“Whenever we see policemen, we run away,” he said.

Kyrgyzstan has ratified the key international documents concerning child labour, and under national law, employers are banned from taking on anyone under the age of 16.

Nevertheless, children commonly work in markets as sweepers, porters or rubbish collectors. Most accompany a parent who works there as a trader.

A comprehensive study into child labour was jointly conducted by the Kyrgyz National Committee for Statistics and the International Labour Organisation in 2007. According to this study, more than 40 per cent of children in Kyrgyzstan were in some kind of employment.

According to the rules, police are only allowed to place youngsters in a juvenile detention centre for anti-social behaviour or if they are runaway or street children.

According to Kyrgyzstan’s child labour legislation, the parent or guardian rather than the child faces punishment for breaching the rules, A first offence brings a warning, subsequent ones fines of up to 50 dollars.

Rights activists say police officers exploit the legislation to make parents pay bribes for the release of their children so as to avoid prosecution.

A social worker with the Centre for the Protection of Children, Akyl Muradylov, told IWPR that this practice was common at markets across the country. Although the situation had improved since rights groups began campaigning against the detentions, they were continuing.

“They catch them, keep them in detention and release them when money has been paid. The practice is still going on,” Muradylov said.

According to human rights activists and the child workers at Dordoi interviewed by IWPR, many have been detained at least once.

Guljamal Sultanalieva, head of the Door Eli foundation which runs projects that address child labour, told IWPR that the bribes averaged between five and 15 dollars.

But she added, “There have been cases involving bigger sums, as we found out when we spoke to many children and their parents while looking into the issue.”

Market trader Kairgul Tentishova said, “We all know that this is the daily routine for policemen who have turned it into an income source to top up their wages. You can ask all the traders whose children work at the market. All of them have encountered corruption.”

Tentisheva recalled the first time she went to the Juvenile Crime Prevention Centre to arrange the release of her son. The authorities there refused to let him go, even after she promised not to bring him to the market to work again.

Another woman there told her that she would need to pay a bribe, so Tentishova gave the officials the four dollars she had for her fare back home.

The interior ministry acknowledges that police apprehend teenagers they find working in markets, but insists that they operate within the law and only detain children who are living on the street or who have run away from home.

“We have inspectors who work with minors and local policemen who monitor the streets,” ministry spokesman Ernis Osmonbaev told IWPR. “It isn’t only the markets that they check. They don’t just grab them – they approach someone if they notice something [suspicious] and enquire what the teenager is doing there.”

Osmonbaev flatly denied allegations of police corruption. “We are doing it with the children’s welfare in mind, yet they [parents] turn round and say we release them in exchange for money,” he said.

He added that social workers and civil society activists accompanied police officers when large sweeps were conducted.

The deputy head of the Juvenile Crime Prevention Centre, Ryspay Asanakunov, also denied that his subordinates took bribes to release detained teenagers.

“If these parents come and tell us and prove everything, I will take harsh measures against my staff members. At the moment I can guarantee you that I don’t have staff members involved in that. No one takes bribes,” Asanakunov said.

Child rights workers face with a dilemma about how best to help working minors, whose lives are disrupted and can face health problems.

Three years ago the Family Health Centre, whose staff members regularly visit markets to check on the welfare of underage workers, announced that in four locations including Dordoi, they had identified some 300 children who needed medical treatment for respiratory and musculoskeletal problems.

Often, these children come from single-parent families or are “internal migrants” from other parts of Kyrgyzstan. If they lack residence rights in Bishkek, they cannot access schools, state nurseries or health services.

“Many children who work come from families where a mother is bringing up several children on her own,” said Gladis Temirshieva, from the Centre for Protection of Children. “In cases like this, when she is struggling to provide for her family, the eldest child takes on the responsibility for helping her support the family.

“Very often this child works alongside with the mother. But there are also families where the burden of providing for them rests solely on shoulders of the eldest child – where the mother is ill, or there is no one to look after small children at home.”

Temirchieva said that as well as rooting out police corruption, the authorities should focus on addressing the social problems that force minors to go out to work. Those official measures that had been put in place “are not being implemented properly”, she said.

Sultanalieva agreed that more needed to be done. “Our law enforcement bodies are very well aware of the problem… but they try to close their eyes to issues like that,” she said.

She recalled how her NGO helped one mother, Nasip Shopokova, after her 13-year old son was repeatedly detained by police.She and Shopokova reported the boy’s multiple detentions to the Juvenile Crime Prevention Centre and talked to an investigator, but did not get a response.

Shopokova said that during the most recent incident, she was so desperate that she grabbed the door of the police car when it drove off and ran after it for several metres before the police stopped and let her son go.

“They are our children,” Shopokova said. “They are not criminals, street children or homeless. They are just helping us by working in their spare time. What’s so bad about that?”

Timur Toktonaliev is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.