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Tehran home to 25,000 street children: MP

TEHRAN, Iran, Aug 9, 2000(AFP) - Twenty-five thousand child squatters, most of them girls, live on the streets of Tehran, where growing drug use and prostitution are leading to a social crisis, a member of the Iranian parliament said Wednesday.

"Social ills such as (drug) addition and runaway girls will someday plague us all," MP Shahrbanu Amani told a conference of provincial social welfare officials, as quoted by the IRNA state news agency.

Amani warned of the consequence of social inequalities on the young, calling "the unfair distribution of wealth" the main culprit of Iran's social ills.

Tehran's press in recent weeks has been focusing on the plight of runaway girls, which it calls "an appalling reflection of the nation's social and economic situation."

The government-run newspaper Iran charged Tuesday that two decades of incomplete attention to the problem were to blame, warning that the social crisis threatened the very fabric of the Iranian family.

"Parental abuse, divorce, addiction, forced marriages and social disregard for the young are the main reasons why girls run away from home," the paper said.

The state daily warned that many girls, lured with the promise of better lives, leave the country and wind up either in virtual slavery or as the prey of organ traffickers.

In July, Mohammad-Ali Zam, head of Tehran's cultural and artistic organization, reported on alarming trends in the Iranian youth.

"Drug addiction is the rage among schoolchildren. Prostitution has increased 635 percent among high school students and the rate of suicide in the country has exceeded the record by 109 percent" in the years 1998 and 1999, the cleric said.

Zam added that divorce is on the rise and that the average age of prostitutes has dropped to 20 years old, compared with 27 a few years ago.

The Iranian population, estimated at 62 million, is one of the world's youngest, with 35 million people under the age of 20.

Iran is a major passing point for drug traffickers, connecting drug-producing countries -- particularly Afghanistan -- with the markets of the Gulf and Europe.

About 250 tonnes of opium and its derivatives are seized each year by Iranian security forces.