Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 entry Aug. 2003

hild Labor, Gypsies

Anyone who spends even a few minutes looking at material from UNICEF (originally, the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, but now, simply, United Nations Children's Fund) will come away depressed and confused. It is depressing not only that slavery still exists in the world, but that so many bought-and-sold human pieces of property are children between the ages of 7 and 14. UNICEF's most conservative estimate is that there are 250 million children held in bondage in the world. The confusing part is that it is not clear exactly what "slavery" means in this context. I am not sure if the numbers include the thousands of child soldiers serving in armies in some parts of the world, or the many children who work in sweat shops but who live with their immediate or extended families. If all that is taken into consideration, the numbers rise towards 500,000—half a billion (!) children in bondage, some of which —sexual slavery, for example— is perverse beyond belief. 

Given those horrors, I suppose that the newspaper headline "A Child Slave at Every Stoplight in Naples" has to be taken in context. The phenomenon is now widespread in the city: young children walk up to your car and ask for money. Some beg outright; some wipe off the headlamps (they are too small to reach up to the windshield); and some carry signs telling you how poor, miserable and far from home they are. It is potentially dangerous for them; one young boy was run over at a crossing earlier this year and seriously injured. 

There are, by my very unofficial and personal estimate, a few hundred such children in the city. I don't think the numbers are in the thousands. A city commission has been formed to deal with the problem, though no one knows what that means. The children are, apparently, not slaves in the normally accepted use of the word, since most of them seem to be under the supervision of an adult, probably a family member —maybe a mother or big sister— who always hides in the shade on the side of the road while the children collect the alms for 8-10 hours at a stretch (particularly grim given the dangerous heat and humidity this summer in Naples). 

Many of them come from the Rom (Gypsy) encampment in the Secondigliano area of Naples up in back of the main airport. One look inside that ramshackle nest will put to rest any lingering, romantic notion that, well, maybe gypsies no longer drive colorful horse-drawn wagons, but they are secretly all well-off and, after the begging gig, sneak back home in their Mercedes to plush mobile homes on the outskirts. There are no operattas being played out in Secondigliano; the gypsies truly live in a pit with few or no sanitary facilities or other amenities.

Is it illegal? Probably. The children don't go to school; they and their families are almost certainly in the country illegally; and the children work in conditions that are "abusive". However, those are problems separate from the issue of forced child labor. It is one thing to go in and free a real slave (and there are those in Italy), maybe an Albanian child sold to a gang or a pimp in Italy, and quite another thing for the state to "free" children from their primary care givers, their parents, who are making them work, and no doubt would defend the practice as time-honored and honest. At least we are not stealing, they would say. In any event, most drivers are ambivalent at the stoplights when a soft-eyed little seven-year-old girl asks for money. Are you supporting child abuse? Slavery? Are you helping them? I don't know. 

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