By Maksim Yeniseyev
Children wait outside High School No. 18 in Tashkent last September before the first day of the school year. Authorities are concerned about the potential link between truancy and radicalisation. [Maksim Yeniseyev]
TASHKENT -- Concerned about a potential link between truancy and radicalisation, police in Tashkent are checking attendance at schools and colleges and raiding internet cafes.
Authorities suspect that idle children prowling the internet become vulnerable to extremist propaganda online.
One method to combat that problem, as hundreds of radicalised Uzbekistanis fight alongside militants in the Middle East, is to prevent truancy, so that children and students are attending classes, say authorities.
Police, concerned about potential youth radicalisation, launched Operation Attendance in February.
Every day, crime prevention officers start by visiting schools and colleges.
"We monitor the punctuality of schoolchildren and college students coming to class," a source at the Yakkasaray District police station in Tashkent told Caravanserai. "We carry on conversations with truants and find out about their habits."
Tashkent police are targeting internet cafes and computer clubs that let truants surf the internet.
In a two-month span, Tashkent police conducted 12 such raids and found 339 students (112 primary school children and 227 college and high school students) in such locations during the day skipping class, said a Tashkent police senior inspector, Azimjon Sultanov, during a March 14 briefing, according to Gazeta.uz.
The authorities also fined the managers of five computer clubs "who allowed minors to be present without their parents after 9 pm", he said.
Tashkent has stringent rules, unique in Uzbekistan, meant to prevent extremist recruitment and other online crimes. Computer clubs are supposed to close by 9 pm. Minors must be accompanied by parents or guardians to enter such clubs.
"I know that extremists deliberately spend time on the internet to meet people," Tashkent schoolteacher Nigina Tasheva told Caravanserai.
Caravanserai reported earlier about how Solibakhon Nazrullayeva, a student from a Samarkand college, became part of a network of Imam Bukhari Jamaat extremists. She downloaded extremist propaganda on her telephone and spread it around the college. She was fined and received two years' probation.
Neglected children are also easy prey for extremists, according to observers.
Some potential targets are children, often from out of town, who seek work in relatively prosperous Tashkent, not just youngsters who idle their time away in internet cafes.
"Minors are performing unskilled labour in Tashkent," Shakhnoza Ismailova, an employee at the Tashkent-based Centre for Social and Legal Aid to Juveniles, told Caravanserai. "They work on construction sites and at outdoor markets."
"Without [well-intentioned] adults around and aware of social inequality, they can become an easy target for extremists. Often they work with former migrant labourers, among whom the risk of radicalism is high too."
The low-income families who send their children to find menial work can count on the government to help, said Ismailova, adding that children in that position can go to boarding schools that cover their living and study expenses.
"Successful prevention of juvenile delinquency requires efforts from the entire society and government system to ensure harmonious development of adolescents, starting from early childhood," said UNICEF Representative in Uzbekistan Sascha Graumann, according to a February 15 UNICEF press release.
Uzbekistan already has experience in placing low-income children in boarding schools.
In 2015, the country's government-run boarding schools had 19,896 children, according to the government.
"A study of some regions shows that only 14 per cent of those children were orphans, while more than half were placed in residential care due to socio-economic difficulties faced by their families," UNICEF said in a February 13 statement.
That said, UNICEF hopes to "significantly decrease the number of institutionalised children, keep them with their families or find alternative family-like solutions" in 2017, said the organisation.
Authorities aware of Tashkent's magnetic pull for low-income youths from other provinces periodically sweep markets and other workplaces, as well as locations where homeless might congregate, in search of youths.
Within a month, authorities conducting Operation Tozalash Antiterror (Sweep Antiterror) found 398 unsupervised children in Tashkent and sent them to rehab centres, authorities reported March 12, according to Gazeta.uz.
This year so far, Tashkent police have nabbed about 1,400 juveniles from various provinces who came to the capital in search of paychecks, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported March 15. Police sent them to rehab centres and then to their parents.
The attention paid to vulnerable youth might be having an impact.
In Tashkent in 2015, juveniles committed 374 known offences, a number that fell to 298 in 2016, said Tashkent deputy police chief Doniyor Tashkhojayev at a March 3 briefing, according to Podrobno.uz.
Presidents of Central Asian countries overall called 2017 a year of changes and said they foresee further innovations in 2018.
What is the biggest threat to peace and security in your country for 2018?