TASHKENT -- Uzbekistan is paying attention to the plight of children and youths not attending school.
Those who have left the educational system for one reason or another could fall under the influence of crime rings or extremists, authorities warn.
Even schoolchildren and college students ostensibly attending school are at risk.
In 2016, youths attending academically oriented high schools and vocational colleges in Uzbekistan committed more than 1,000 crimes, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev announced at a February 9 meeting dedicated to the work of Uzbekistani law enforcement agencies, according to Gazeta.uz.
One reason is poor attendance at high schools, said Mirziyoyev, according to Podrobno.uz. He urged law enforcement to step up inspections at schools and to monitor attendance rates.
"It's essential ... to have [law enforcement] start every workday by doing its rounds at schools," he said.
UNICEF responded with a supportive message days afterward.
"UNICEF is committed to provide technical support to the relevant ministries and institutions in strengthening the justice system for children, as per international norms and standards," UNICEF said in a statement February 15.
The right to education
Uzbekistani law calls for 12 years of compulsory free education, but some children miss school because they have to work, Saida Gafurova, a Tashkent schoolteacher, told Caravanserai.
"Parents themselves are sending their kids to local markets to do business," said Gafurova.
Police regularly combat this phenomenon by raiding markets to find illegal employment of minors, Zafar Khasanov, an employee of the Samarkand Province police crime prevention department, told Caravanserai.
"Minors don't demand much," he said. "That's why they're hired."
Police on February 16 in Samarkand Province inspected 511 public high schools and 108 academically oriented high schools and vocational colleges. It took action against 79 parents and 16 teachers for allegedly violating youths' right to an education, according to the Uzbekistan National News Agency.
Influence of extremists
There have been cases of such working teenagers falling under terrorist recruiters' influence, said Khasanov, though he cited no instances.
"Recruiters first win the confidence of young people ... and then, after a while, suggest they leave the country to join the 'Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant' (ISIL)," Askar Davletov, a Tashkent police officer, told Caravanserai.
Authorities, aware of the extremist recruiting of younger Uzbekistanis, have tightened the rules for travel abroad if one is under 35, said Davletov.
Those younger Uzbekistanis "have to undergo interviews in police stations to gain permission to go abroad", he said.
"During those interviews, every month, in just one district of Tashkent, police identify about three or four young people who intended to join ISIL," said Davletov. "Certainly, we miss some too."
Hundreds of Uzbekistanis are said to be fighting for ISIL in Syria and Iraq, as Uzbekistan pursues a policy, signed into law last September, to prevent youth extremism.
Authorities, besides monitoring school attendance and looking for child labour, are on the lookout for children who absorb extremist messages online.
"In our college, they ... randomly check cell phone content," Saodat Mirakhmedova, a student at the Tashkent Professional College of Tourism, told Caravanserai.
Some schools and colleges are installing video cameras in the classrooms and on their campuses to ensure security.
"We'd like to equip the whole college with this kind of equipment," Zokir Ganiyev, director of the Tashkent Aircraft-Building Vocational College, told Caravanserai. "This will allow us to see the big picture and ... will increase security at the college overall."
Schools are looking for funds to enable compliance with the National Security Service (SNB)'s recommendation to install video surveillance.
Also, it is essential to raise awareness among students and parents on the dangers of online menaces like extremist recruitment, Irina Khakimova, a psychologist who teaches at the Tashkent Professional College of Tourism, told Caravanserai.
Families play a major role in keeping children out of trouble, said Davletov.
"In families with a congenial environment, where the members understand each other, regardless of financial circumstances, the children don't become involved in crime or give in to the influence of dubious types," he said.
UNICEF recommends a comprehensive approach.
"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 Sascha Graumann, the UNICEF representative in Uzbekistan, according to the February 15 UNICEF press release issued in response to Mirziyoyev's February 9 remarks.
"Young persons should have opportunities of playing an active role in the society and should be considered as contributors to the society," said Graumann.