Part One – Armenia: Is Corruption Responsible for Packed
Six years ago, Armenia pledged that thousands of children institutionalized
in state-run orphanages for reasons of poverty would be returned to their
biological families, or placed with foster families. But, today, little has
changed for most of these children.
Eighty percent of the 4,900 children residing in Armenia’s 10 state-run
orphanages, as well as 28 other state institutions for those from broken homes,
have at least one living parent, according to research by UNICEF, the United
Nations’ child-welfare-policy arm. They live in the facilities because their
families, quite simply, cannot afford to raise them.
In 2006, the Armenian government, acting on UNICEF’s encouragement, launched
a program to encourage parents to take back their children from state-run
facilities. Officials hoped the program would enable them to shut down some
orphanages, or convert them into institutions where social workers could
provide counseling to both children and their parents.
The state has made little headway over the ensuing six years. Only 21 foster
families have signed on to the program since 2006, according to officials, who
add that a lack of funding hampers their ability to attract participants.
At the same time, the State Statistical Service reports that the number of
children living in orphanages is increasing. In 2011, only 56 children were
returned to their families from state-run institutions, while another 267 new
residents were admitted.
The question for child-welfare specialists is simple: why is it so difficult
to reduce the number of orphanage residents?
Some experts allege that the transition to foster-families is lagging
because Armenia’s orphanages actually offer lucrative opportunities for a chain
of orphanage employees and state officials in charge of procurement for the
The 2012 state budget allotted 1.7 billion drams (about $4 million) to
orphanages, a sum on top of outside donations. The government reports that
institutions spend about 1.6 million drams (roughly $3,930) per year on each resident
child – significantly more than the 1.02 million-dram ($2,500) subsidy given to
a foster family to help offset child-care costs.
An audit last month by the State Commission for the Protection of Economic
Competition showed that the funding in state-run facilities is “greatly
misused,” primarily for food, which often has been purchased at prices
200-percent above market levels, said Commission Chairperson Artak Shaboian.
“A considerable part of the state-allotted money has not served its
purpose,” Shaboian charged. The investigation is ongoing.
In a comment to EurasiaNet.org, Artem Asatrian, the newly appointed minister
of labor and social welfare, stated that the ministry, which oversees
orphanages, is committed to addressing the issue. “In every sphere, there can
be misuses [of money] and our main task is now to reduce these abuses and to
make budget funds serve their purpose,” Asatrian said.
Former MP Anahit Bakshian, an opposition member and long-time advocate for
reform of Armenia’s orphanages, asserts that the current situation will change
only when “corruption is eliminated.”
“The de-institutionalization plan will not be implemented as long as all of
the child-care institutions are financed on a per-child basis, which means
directors are interested in having more children so that they get more money
[from the government],” Bakshian said.
“Orphanages are businesses, and nobody wants to lose their business,” she
Government officials declined to respond to the allegation.
Deputy Labor and Social Affairs Minister Filaret Berikian argues that
“Armenia has made a lot of progress” in transferring children back to their
biological families. “The children’s de-institutionalization plan has been our
priority, and we have been successful,” claimed Berikian. “One should simply
want to see and acknowledge the progress.”
Contrary to official data, Berikian angrily insisted that the number of
underprivileged children living in orphanages has decreased. He did not
But UNICEF Child Protection Officer Eduard Israyelian counters that,
compared with Armenia’s northern neighbor Georgia, “progress” has been
While Georgia was once “in the same situation as Armenia,” Israyelian
recounted, today roughly 800 Georgian children live in foster families saving
the Georgian government around $3.5 million per year in child-care costs.
In addition, small-group homes have been created for those for whom foster
families or a return to their biological families is not an option.
Such facilities do not exist in Armenia. “Even if we put aside the child’s
right to live in a family and its importance, from a purely financial
perspective, the state would benefit from financing foster families rather than
child-care institutions,” Israyelian said. “But we do not see the political
will to transfer to the new format.”
The will to tackle reported
abuses at state-run orphanages also
appears weak, say members of a monitoring group on Armenian child-care
institutions created by the Open Society Foundation-Armenia. Cases of violence
against children at four of Armenia’s child-care institutions have been
reported to the government, as well as cases of children being sent to work on
outside construction sites or farms, the group found.
“Based on various studies and monitoring, I do not believe for a second that by
training the staff of these institutions, the attitude toward the children
under their care can be changed,” said David Amirian, the deputy director for
programs at the Open Society Foundation-Armenia.
[The Open Society Foundation Armenia operates as part of the Soros Foundations
network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the New York-based Open
Society Foundations, a separate entity in the Soros network].
Amirian believes that Armenia’s child-care institutions cannot be “merely
reformed,” but require “radical solutions.” Meanwhile, some government
officials overseeing Armenia’s orphanages acknowledge shortcomings, but say
“this issue should not be rushed.”
“The process needs serious research,” said Lala Ghazarian, head of the
Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare’s department for Family, Women and
Childcare Issues. “The family issues are often too deeply rooted and rushing
might be dangerous” for children.
UNICEF’s Israyelian agrees that transforming Armenia’s child-care
institutions “might take a decade,” but maintains that “it has to start now
with a clear-cut, strategic action plan.”
“Unfortunately there isn’t one,” he said, “because there is no political will.”
Part 2 of a two-part series
Orphans Try to Secure Their Right to a Home
As challenging as living conditions may be for children in Armenia’s
10 state-run orphanages, the difficulties only seem to multiply when
they turn 18 years old and must fend for themselves.
When 22-year-old manual laborer Arthur Tsarukian, a former orphanage
resident, died from acute pneumonia earlier this year, many Armenians
condemned the government for supposed indifference to the estimated
30-35 young people who succumb to easily treatable diseases each year.
Lacking proper housing, Tsarukian, who left central Armenia’s Gavar
orphanage in 2008, had been renting a small, damp and cold basement area
in a Yerevan suburb, and could not afford treatment for his condition.
By law, he was entitled to occupy a state-purchased, one-room apartment.
He did not receive it in time.
Currently, 331 former orphanage residents are waiting to receive an
apartment from the government via a state-funded program that has long
been a source of controversy. Launched in 2003 under the auspices of the
Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, it quickly encountered
difficulties. By 2008, 28 of the 149 apartments distributed were found
to be unfit for habitation. The program was suspended a year later
after state auditors found that the ministry had misused 1.5 billion
drams (roughly $4 million) earmarked for apartment purchases, depriving
“these children of the opportunity to live in decent conditions.”
Thirty-seven-year-old construction worker Khachatur Afrikian was
among a group of eight former orphanage residents who received
one-bedroom apartments from the program on the ground floor of a
16-storey residential building in the Yerevan suburbs. Aging sewage and
water pipes for the entire building run along the ceiling of Afrikian’s
apartment; in winter, they often burst, flooding all seven flats,
recounted Afrikian. He termed the government’s handling of the matter
“I came down with tuberculosis because of living in these
conditions,” he claimed. “My legs constantly ache from dampness; there
is no ventilation, no proper window. The floor is bare concrete. This is
not an apartment.”
His three-year-old daughter, sick from the flu, lay in a half-damp
bed in the flat. “Every day I turn to the [labor and social welfare]
ministry, to no avail,” he continued, his voice resonating with mounting
frustration. “They say; ‘Don’t live [there], if you don’t want to.’”
Sale documents for 2004 show that the government bought the basement
area for just under 3.8 million drams (at the time, $8,400), when,
according to the Yerevan real-estate agency Bars, a regular two-bedroom
flat in the same building cost roughly 2.5 million drams, or about
Lala Ghazarian, a senior Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare
official who sat on the commission that approved the property purchases,
conceded that the process had “shortcomings.” But Ghazarian added that
the government cannot give new housing to those who already have
received inadequate apartments under the program.
In a society where most young adults live with their parents or
spouses, and well-paid work is scarce, those raised in orphanages, and
who have no other family to fall back on, must depend on state support.
Boys not interested in state-financed higher education often opt for the
army; girls for short-term stays in charity residences in Etchmiadzin,
outside of Yerevan, and the northwestern city of Gyumri.
Ghazarian said that the government’s “priority now is those who don’t
have any [residence].” Cash returned to the state budget from the
embezzled apartment funds will finance a program to build public housing
for former orphanage residents, the disabled, war veterans and elderly
individuals without relatives, she said.
The first building to go up under this program, a 1.2-billion-dram
($2.9 million) renovation of a half-built structure, already has opened
in Maralik, about 90 kilometers from Yerevan in the northwestern
province of Shirak, and will house 27 former orphanage residents.
Twenty-one-year-old orphan Artur Karchikian, one of the first
residents of the Maralik facility, described the 35- to 50-square-meter
flats as “incomparably better” than those provided under the initial
apartment program. He cited the distance from Yerevan, the location of
most work in Armenia, as “the only problem.”
Local specialists who work on orphanage issues say they are mostly
satisfied with the new project, but point out that the initial,
three-year contracts are only short-term. If the apartment is maintained
well, the contract can be extended to 10 years, said Ghazarian.
In April, Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian told cabinet
members that such facilities are intended to serve only as a transitory
solution so that former orphanage residents have “the constant
motivation to aspire [to greater things] and earn a good life.”
Given that unofficial unemployment is estimated at well into the
double digits, Afrikian scoffs at the prime minister’s comments. A
one-bedroom apartment in the Yerevan suburbs, where Afrikian lives,
costs, on average, $40,000 to $50,000; a sum far removed from his
monthly salary as an unskilled construction worker.
“If we have jobs, there will always be motivation,” he said. “But
today even those with proper education and employment cannot afford to
buy an apartment, let alone us.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.