By Mohammed al-Kawmani
Sana’a, Yemen, 18Nov2015: Lack of legislation and coordination among authorities combating poverty in Yemen have turned begging into a profitable profession, mostly at the hands of gangs who lure children into the business before they are arrested and released again onto the streets.
Wearing ramshackle clothes, Maha (alias name), a young begger, said: “Please give me ten riyals to feed myself or I’ll die of hunger”. She added: “Have pity on me so I can pay rent…God protect you.”
Hunger too has forced Mohammad, 14, to beg for nearly 11 hours a day. “I’m trying to feed my mother and six sisters, pay rent, and pay for my sick sister’s medicine. This is why I beg. Sometimes I work if I find it”.
Maha and Mohammed are two of nearly 7,000 child beggars in Sana’a and 30,000 across Yemen, according to a study published in 2011 by Dr. Mohammad Ahmad Zobi and Dr. Noria Ali Ahmad al-Houri, from the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Sana’a. The applied study, focusing on Sana’a, is entitled: “Begging: Educational and social impact in Yemen”.
However, field experts running an anti-beggary program, have put the actual number of child beggars in Sana’a – below 18 years of age- at double the figure mentioned in the above study.
Over six months, this reporter followed child beggars who work 4 to 10 hours a day in different parts of the capital.
At every step of this investigation, the journalist hit obstacles like the absence of accurate information and threats from ringleaders of these organized gangs.
Driven by destitution, some beggars operate independently while others work as part of organized gangs that command children, exploiting their innocence, the poverty of their parents, or the neglect of their guardians.
The situation is worsened by the fact that the penalty stipulated in Article 203, Section 2 of the Penal Code of 1994 is nowhere close to acting as a deterrent. Meanwhile, there are no tough penalties against those who exploit children and force them into begging. In other nations, even parents, relatives, and guardians could be punished severely if they exploit children in this manner.
The Safe Childhood Center – a shelter beggar for and homeless children – does not have a data base on the number of child beggars who have stayed there. This prevents the compilation of accurate information on beggars amid weak coordination among the authorities concerned, namely: The Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Interior, and Sana’a Municipality.
These challenges and the ease of getting beggars released have effectively turned their detention into a few days’ holiday at the anti-beggary detention center in the capital, closed down two years ago due to lack of funding.
This reporter examined 2,117 forms belonging to child beggars aged 5 to 17. The data included information on the date of their arrest by officials of the anti-beggary program.
Fifty-three of them were caught several times over short or long periods of time. The name of one of them appeared in the data more than 21 times. Sixteen had their names listed between 4 and 7 times, and thirty-five were named twice in the data.
The author of the investigation focused on 16 beggars, whose data he organized into a special table. He concluded that the lack of a register for beggars has made attempts to analyze the phenomenon a futile endeavor.
Other factors blamed for widespread child beggars is the failure of both the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, the scarcity of poverty and unemployment aid, lack of political stability and the ease of releasing detained beggars.
In the absence of a database, this reporter conducted a field study involving 116 child beggars in several areas of Sana’a including Bab al-Yaman, al-Tahrir, Zubairi, Hael, Hedda, Shumaila, al-Hasba, al-Sabeen, Taiz Street, University Street and al-Sitteen.
The results have shown that 73.3 percent of them earn between 600 and 2000 riyals a day ($2.7-$9.3), while others earn 200 riyals (less than $1) or 400 riyals ($1.8).
The journalist contacted six out of 16 beggars whose names had been repeated and based on their addresses noted in the forms and the guarantees signed by their local neighborhood registrars.
Muna (alias name), 22, was arrested for the first time when at the age of 16. She has been begging for ten years.
“They used to detain me….then release me in the same day in return for 500 riyals, paid as a guarantee to the neighborhood mukhtar [local official]…”, she said.
The same goes for Ahmad (alias name), 18, who needs a wheelchair.
Ahmad, sitting in al-Hasba district in the afternoon of that hot July day and under the influence of qat said: “Give me a salary and I will stay home. Even if they catch me a thousand times I will come again and beg because I cannot do any job and have a family in Dhammar. As you see, I am paralyzed.”
He added: “Each time I am placed in the anti-beggary building, I do not pay a single riyal. A week later, I would sign a pledge not to beg again after which I would be released, despite the fact that they would be certain I will beg again.”
The ease of getting detained beggars released is the “largest challenge” when it comes to dealing with them, especially children caught as part of rings consisting of five or six, according to deputy head of the anti-beggary program, Ali Ahmad Yaish. “The security authorities are the biggest obstacle facing us,” he explained saying that they are busy with more pressing issues and thus unable to deter street beggars.
In accordance to the plan of the anti-beggary project , established by cabinet decree in 1999 to round up and rehabilitate beggars, detainees are first brought to the headquarters of this project in Hatarish district. The building has a modest operating budget.
However, the program stopped rounding up child beggars two years ago on ground it wanted to upgrade the rehabilitation center and due to funding shortages. Currently, the center only receives beggars suffering from mental illnesses.
This situation prompted former director of the center, Rashed Abdullah al-Ashul, to resign in 2013 to protest the “neglect of those in charge”.
Ashul said: “We would take the appropriate measures, sheltering [beggars] as part of our intervention. The motive of child beggars often is to support their parents or families. We would refer the children to the juvenile prosecution, which would send them either to safe childhood centers, or summon their families, or send them to juvenile homes.”
Article 124 of the law on Rights of children of 2002 states: “Minors 12 years old or less may not be detained in police stations or at other security service offices. They must be handed over to their parents or guardians. If that is not possible, then they must be placed in the nearest juvenile rehabilitation center for no longer than 24 hours, after which they are to be referred to the juvenile prosecution to consider their cases in accordance to the provisions of the Juvenile Law.”
Yaish said that children would be released after obtaining from them guarantees and pledges not to return to begging. However, he said the guarantees were often pre-prepared by the parents and relatives of the beggars and are brought as soon as the children are detained to get them released. The documents in question are nothing more than written forms stamped by the “Mokhtars” (dignitaries of neighborhoods) where the beggars reside, notarized both by a police station and the local council.
However, the amended Juvenile Welfare Law of 1992 states in Article 3 that juveniles are at risk of being deemed delinquent in any of the following cases:
If a juvenile is found to begging. Article 5 states that every juvenile caught for the first time in a situation mentioned in clauses 1-5 of Article 3 of the law would prompt a written warning from the relevant prosecution to the parents or guardians to monitor the juvenile’s behavior. In case of repeat offense or in case the juvenile is caught in situations of delinquency stated in clauses 6-7 of the article, the appropriate action stipulated in the law shall be taken.
According to agreed “norms”, the Mokthar sponsors the beggar in return for 500 to 1000 Yemeni riyals ($2.4-$4.6). Despite the illegality of this, failure to pay the Mokthar means that he could delay the paperwork, according to beggars.
However, the guarantees given by the Mokhtars remain “useless”, according to beggars, because they do not carry any obligation on the parents or beggars to refrain from returning to begging.
Releasing beggars is not illegal, according to Yaish, because there is no legal mechanism regulating the detention and release of beggars in the anti-beggary project. Furthermore, there is no capacity to keep them inside the building: the allocated budget for the project is around $18,600 a month, while the project needs ten times this sum to cover its operational budget.
The director of the Social Affairs at Sana’a Municipality, Ali al-Dulaimi, said that the project has no regulations that spell out its functions and competences, while the measures in place only require a pledge from the beggars not to return to begging, something Dulaimi said was not enough.
In turn, the prosecution confirmed that it enforces the law, according to Maj. Mohammad Salim Ahmed, officer at the Department of Public Prosecutions, who added: “It is not our responsibility whether there are loopholes.”
According to the amended Juvenile Welfare Law, beggars who are arrested are moved to juvenile care homes. However, the low capacity of these homes in Sana’a (tw0 centers that can accommodate 200) means that beggars are often released and allowed to return to the streets.
The president of the Democratic School (human rights NGO) Jamal al-Shami accused the Minister of Social Affairs of “failure” and “not doing enough” during routine visits to police stations and juvenile care homes to investigate allegations of torture and abuse of child beggars, which he said were a reality there.
A report prepared by the organization in 2009 has documented violations against juveniles, including torture of children in police stations.
Legal loopholes open a door for fraud
Nour al-Din Mohammad al-Hadi, lawyer and social issues expert, stressed that there were “a lot of loopholes” in articles of the Penal Code dealing with begging.
This means that the law can be easily circumvented, turning begging into a craft tishat not punishable by law, except on paper, Hadi said.
The government has made some efforts, according to the third periodic report submitted by Yemen regarding the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, with respect to limiting child begging and homelessness. These included the establishment of care homes and shelters and the passing of Article 203 Section 7 on begging in the Penal Code of 1994.
The article stipulates that any person who has the ability to make a living in a legal manner but caught begging is punishable by no more than six months in prison, and one year if the begging is accompanied with threats, fraud, or exploitation of children who are not of this person’s kin. The court may instead sentence the beggar to do compulsory work for a period not exceeding a year if the person is able to work, or order the person to be placed in a shelter, nursing home or other recognized charity if the person is unable to work.
However, this law is poorly enforced because of loopholes that make it easier to escape punishment thanks to loose wording. For example, the law defines beggars as those who have “grown used” to begging — meaning that beggars are not to be punished unless they have been arrested several times already. Meanwhile, exploiting children who are not kin, means that the punishment is not exacted on those who exploit their own children, grandchildren or children in begging.
The Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Labor, and the Social Welfare Fund allocates salaries disbursed quarterly to poor families and individuals who have no income and cannot work, due to old age or disability.
The ministry spends around 62.5 billion riyals ($292 million) annually to cover 1.5 million cases. Around 900,000 other cases are waiting since 2008, pending budget allocations.
According to data from the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Labor and the Social Welfare Fund, each family registered with the fund receives 18,000 riyals ($83) every three months and each individual 12,000 riyals ($55).
In another tour of Sana’a, this reporter spotted a child begging between passing cars, asking for “just 300 riyals ($1.4).
When asked why he was only asking for 300 riyals, Issa, 13, from Hodeida province, replied: “My brothers and I live with my father and his wife. My mother died. We are two boys, and two girls. We all beg and we are each required to return with a specific sum. Mine is 1,000 riyals a day”.
To verify what he said, we followed Issa, without his knowledge between 12 noon and 3 pm. He left to the Sanina district, a poor slum. He entered a small mud house, its windows covered with cardboard. The walls were straddled by cracks and the house looked like it was about to collapse on the heads of its occupants.
After waiting for over an hour outside the house, a woman came out. Her name was Suad. She was in her late thirties and hailed from Hodeida. She told us her story and why her family is begging.
“I go out daily with my children and my step children looking for our daily bread. We disperse in the streets. Each is required to not return unless they collect a certain amount.”
Suad continued: “My husband was a worker but had an accident five years ago. He is now paralyzed. You can come in and see for yourself. He suffers from renal failure. We have all the paperwork and we have sought help but to no avail.”
This family has been begging for four years, according to Suad. The sums they receive every three months from Social Affairs is barely enough to cover a week’s expenses. “What we get from begging covers our basic needs, including treatment, dialysis for my husband, food, and rent,” she said.
The family is registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs, and gets a handout of 18,000 riyals ($83) every three months or $28 a month in a country where the minimum wage is around $93 a month.
“I protect them and make sure they don’t become criminals and thieves,” Said H.H. “If I weren’t here they would not have been able to support their families, and they probably would have died of hunger or become delinquent.”
The man said his ring of beggars comprises 10 children. “I know them and I know their families. Some are orphans, and others I found them begging in other areas, to we added them to our group.”
He continued: “There is no process or plan to our work. We wait God to send us our livelihood. At the end of the day, we meet, count our yield, and distribute among them equally.” H.H. also said he would follow up their cases if they are arrested by the anti-begging program.
The elderly man lives in one room with his wife who did not bear children. The rent costs 10,000 riyals ($46.5), while assistance they receive is not enough to even pay electricity let alone water and food.
The journalist asked Brig. Gen. Abdul-Razzak al-Muayed, former director of Capital Security, for clarification on the role of the Ministry of Interior and the security authorities in cracking down on rings of beggars.
Muayed said: “Yemeni society, including security officers, feel mercy and compassion towards the beggars. They cannot be prosecuted or harassed as long as they do not commit crimes or hurt anyone.”
Muayed admitted the difficulty of imprisoning beggars. “Even if they are prosecuted and rounded up, our capabilities are limited and can barely accommodate those detained in major crimes at police stations and various detention centers. There are no dedicated places to detain child beggars and we are concerned about allowing them to mix with criminals and suspects in major crimes.”
A field study carried out by this reporter on 116 child beggars from various areas of Sana’a — 72.5% male and the rest female – between 6 and 17 years found that 29% were between six and 10 years of age; 51% percent between 11 and 14 and 20% between 15 and 17 years of age.
The study showed that 85.6% are exploited and forced to beg by rings that “rent” them from their families in return for monthly payments, or are directly exploited by their families directly.
Most started begging between 2011 and 2015, the period that saw political unrest, which adversely affected the national economy. Poverty rates shot up and so did begging in Yemen in general and in Sana’a in particular.
The study also concluded that up to 39.5% of beggars are illiterate. Around 46% had enrolled previously in preliminary education before dropping out.
The journalist compared these cases with data of the Ministry of Social Affairs. Up to 25% of cases were receiving salaries every three months while the rest got no handouts from any entity linked to the ministry.
Psychologist Dr. Abir Mohammed Ibrahim called for a radical solution to the exploitation of children in begging and labor after looking at results of the field study.
Dr. Ibrahim said the results are catastrophic in terms of educational trends and stressed that laws to protect children as well as signed international treaties are being broken.
In the absence of government oversight and in light of weak coordination among government agencies, these forgotten street children are left to be exploited and their innocence is sold on the streets of Sana’a in the name of destitution. This highlights the need for reforming and developing legislative and social systems to end the phenomenon of regular begging, which for some has become a career.
This investigation was prepared with the support and supervision of ARIJ (Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism) www.arij.net