Balkans grapple with exploding youth crime

Following a decade of wars and ensuing social and economic decline, Balkan countries find themselves ill-equipped to handle growing juvenile crime and delinquency. In 2007, youngsters were responsible for 10% of all known offences committed in Bosnia and Serbia, and 5% in Croatia, official statistics show. However, these rates have been surging for several years and surveys suggest the real number of law-breaking youths is significantly higher.

Serbia and Croatia have acknowledged the problem, but are handicapped by a lack of funds, while in Bosnia simmering nationalism and constant political squabbling have put the issue on the backburner.
“The public only hears about the most brutal crimes committed by youngsters, but estimates of the gloomy number of juvenile crimes indicates something really bad is happening with our children,” says Elmedin Muratbegovic, of the Faculty of Criminal Justice in Sarajevo.

“But the government is not reacting. We have no preventive, correctional or repressive mechanisms to deal with the problem,” he adds.

One in 20 Bosnian children aged 12 to 15 admits to carrying a knife or other dangerous weapon and shoplifting, according to a recent faculty study of 1 750 Bosnian minors.

Every sixth child polled had been involved in brawls, and one in 50 acknowledged that they had inflicted injuries on others that were serious enough for the victim to have sought medical attention.

Juvenile justice

Government neglect of the problem enables youngsters to avoid punishment despite repeat offences, making them perfect recruits for seasoned criminals.

Unlike Croatia and Serbia, Bosnia lacks a special juvenile justice system, as well as prisons for minors. Its two juvenile correctional centres are below international standards. Teenage offenders thus end up in prisons with hardened criminals.

“We are very concerned about that,” says Hubert van Eck Koster, human rights officer with the Bosnian mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “If you have a juvenile in the same prison cell with a suspected war criminal, which we have seen happen, that is clearly not helpful.”

However, a recent string of high-profile incidents involving youths has caused an upsurge in public anger over the problem, putting the government under pressure to make the problem a priority. In February, thousands protested in Sarajevo against government inaction following the death of a 17-year-old boy who was beaten and stabbed in a tram by three teenage boys.

The incident came just a couple of weeks after a 72-year-old woman died from burns when her head was splashed with petrol and set alight by three boys aged 15 to 16. One suspect reportedly had committed 128 criminal acts in 2007. He was among 91 of 93 minors who were repeat offenders released in Sarajevo last year.

The government has since enforced a so-called National Strategy for Juvenile Offending, which won parliamentary approval in 2006 but has been left waiting promulgation. It foresees the implementation of preventative programmes similar to those which have already proved a success in Serbia, where they were introduced at schools about four years ago.

“Already after a year, violent and undisciplined behaviour ... has visibly reduced among schoolchildren,” says Branislava Popovic-Citic, from the Faculty for Special Education and Rehabilitation in Belgrade.

Repeat crimes

However, repeat crime rates among Serbian juveniles still remain very high at between 40% and 60%.

“Juvenile criminals are somewhat neglected because the authorities struggle with rampant adult crime,” says Professor Vladimir Krivokapic, once a justice minister in the former Yugoslavia. “But the failure to successfully deal with young offenders creates the danger they will embark on careers of criminality.”

Popovic-Citic blames the problem on a shortage of resources. “But due to permanent work on the problem and strong efforts to build a wide social coalition to fight against it, I believe it could change in the future,” she says.

Croatia in 2006 adopted a national action plan for the protection of rights of children, including measures to the fight against juvenile criminal offences.

“It proves the awareness of the problem is high but important measures remain ‘empty words’ due to the lack of funding for their implementation,” says Mila Jelavic, Croatia’s ombudsperson for children.

However, experts in Bosnia say funding is the least of the country’s problems when it comes to juvenile delinquency.

“Even the simplest incidents in Bosnia are politicised,” says psychology Professor Vladimir Obradovic, who conducted one of the first studies of risk behaviours among teenagers and case studies of juvenile criminals.

“When serious crimes occur, media immediately focus on ethnicity of criminals and their victims setting the stage for politicians and their nationalist rhetoric,” he says.

Bosnia is described by some as the perfect breeding ground for young criminals. This is explained by its ethnically fragmented education system, half of the population living below or close to the poverty line, omnipresent ethnic tensions and public glorification of war criminals and transition profiteers.

“I believe that we are now only seeing the tip of the iceberg. I am afraid to even just think about what hides bellow the surface,” sociologist Mirsad Abazovic emphasises.— AFP

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