Homelessness and Criminal Exploitation of Russian Minors: Realities, Resources, and Legal Remedies

By Stoecker, Sally W. | Demokratizatsiya, April 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Homelessness and Criminal Exploitation of Russian Minors: Realities, Resources, and Legal Remedies


Stoecker, Sally W., Demokratizatsiya


Sally W. Stoecker is research professor and project director at American University's Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, and an executive editor of Demokratizatsiya. She wishes to thank the American Councils for International Education (ACTR/ACCELs) for supporting her summer 2000 research trip to Irkutsk, Russia, where the findings for this article were collected. The views presented here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Department of Justice.

The demographics of the Russian Federation are alarming. According to Russian president Vladimir Putin, the population of the country declines by roughly 750,000 persons per year. 1 If that trend continues, there will be fewer than twenty-two million Russian citizens in 2015. 2 Numerous problems account for the declining population: out-migration, as well as high infant mortality rates and low life expectancy rates that are in turn results of high unemployment and increased poverty, infectious diseases, environmental hazards, and substance abuse. 3 President Putin has addressed some of the problems publicly, but few concrete measures have been taken to deal with them, with the exception of increasing minimum wages and pensions. What about the children who are born into Russian society? How are they being cared for? What protections does the society provide to its children so that they can grow to be healthy and productive contributors to the public good?

One of the biggest threats to the future of Russia and to its demographic status is the ever-expanding problem of child homelessness and juvenile crime. 4 A homeless or neglected youth (beznadzornyi) is defined as a minor over whom control of behavior is absent as a result of the parents' or legal guardians' failure to fulfill, or to fulfill reliably, their child-rearing responsibilities." Besprizornyi--a more commonly used Russian term for a homeless youth--is defined legally as a beznadzornyi who lacks a place of residence (zhitel'stvo ili prebyvaniye); this usually refers to orphans and in some instances to children who have no place to sleep. 5

Homeless children are extremely vulnerable to enticement into criminal schemes and are increasingly being recruited, relocated, abused, and exploited for profit--especially by criminals such as drug traffickers, child molesters, black marketeers in transplant organs, and corrupt adoption agents seeking to exploit the demand for children's "services." According to the Main Directorate of Internal Affairs (GUVD) in Moscow, several cases of missing children are reported daily and for every reported child there are undoubtedly countless others who leave home voluntary or forcibly, or who escape from orphanages without their absence being recorded. 6

I will address several aspects of the homelessness problem in Russia: environmental sources such as poverty and unemployment; similarities between the homelessness experienced in the interwar period in Soviet history and today; and law enforcement and legislative measures undertaken to address the problem. I call upon the Bush administration to bolster, with rhetorical and financial backing, programs that benefit children and the social welfare, health, and educational agencies that provide care for them in Russia.

Source of the Problem: Nature or Nurture?

Homelessness and juvenile crime are related phenomena, and many criminologists and sociologists call homelessness the "mother" of juvenile crime. As in many spheres of social science, the sources of these problems are debated and are usually placed either with "developmental" factors (such as genetics or child-rearing practices) or with adverse "situational" factors (such as poverty and unemployment). Although the debate has gone back and forth historically, in recent years many criminologists in the West have embraced the developmental over the situational factors and focused research on dysfunctional families and child-rearing practices. …

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