_DSC8135According to UNICEF, there were approximately 1,500 children living or working on the streets of Georgia’s biggest cities in 2008. Precise figures are hard to come by because many of these children lack proper documentation, such as birth certificates or passports, which also means they cannot attend school. In recent years their numbers have probably increased, swelled by young children often locally referred to as “gypsies” even though many self-identify as ethnic Kurds from Azerbaijan.

Some dismiss the problem as only afflicting minority groups, but the problem knows no nationality. International organizations are trying to dispel that notion, but the issue remains largely ignored. That could change with a new two-year, 850,000 euro ($1.1 million) effort funded by the European Union and UNICEF, called Reaching Vulnerable Children in Georgia. Rolling out in Tbilisi and set to expand next year to Batumi or Kutaisi, the project will use mobile teams of social workers, psychologists, and educators and new transitional and day-care centers to identify some 700 street kids and get them into existing child-protection and social-service systems.

Although small children can be seen sleeping on the streets, many have homes and are often supervised by elder siblings. Even so, the term “street child” is still relevant as UNICEF determines this to mean “boys and girls, aged under eighteen years, for whom “the street” has become home and/or their source of livelihood, and who are inadequately protected or supervised.” Moreover, in addition to the social stigma they face, such children often lack legal documents required to receive social services and even education, and their future as adults remains uncertain.

“Children who are on the streets cannot access education [or] proper health care, are often not registered, and can become subject to various forms of violence,” said Sascha Graumann, UNICEF’s representative in Georgia, at the launch of the program on 27 February 2013. “This means that they have fewer chances to become active and well-educated citizens that can make a contribution to the development of the country. Addressing this issue requires interventions to restore their human rights.”

This is a long term journalistic and photographic project by Onnik Krikorian. Follow it on Facebook at Street Kids of Tbilisi.