In Kabul, children are 'rented' out to beggars
KABUL (Pajhwok/IMC): Begging on the street has spawned a vicious practice: beggar mafia are renting children in Kabul, and drugging them with opium to ply their trade.
Afghan cities also see Pakistani beggars in the summer, reveals an investigation by the Independent Media Consortium (IMC) Productions.*
The government outlawed street-begging in November 2008 and set up a commission - made up of different government bodies and the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) - to end street-begging in the capital but it has not helped.
Instead the numbers seem to have grown in the last few years, and many of the beggars are women and children.
who must be in her forties lives in Guzar Qazzi in the 1st District, and has been begging for 12 years. She says she earns roughly 300 Afs daily (1 USD is 56 Afs). Her drug addict husband does not work.
An opium addict she has turned her eight children, the eldest an 18-year-old daughter, into addicts. "I take one or two of the younger children with me every day. The rest stay home with my eldest daughter. Before we leave the house I feed them half a bean of opium. They sleep quietly on the street. When I want to wake them up, I pour water on their faces, and make them drink water. Sometimes they vomit!" she is matter-of-fact. When the children do not get their daily fix, they cry, and complain of body ache, the mother adds.
Freba is part of a 15-member gang of beggar women who drug their children with opium.
The Afghanistan Human Rights Independent Commission (AHRIC) estimates there are 60,000 child addicts in the country. Opium is the most common drug.
Zainab in her fifties is a self-confessed addict and beggar for the last nine years since her return from Pakistan. She says she has seven children between 5 and 28 years, and the three youngest are addicted to opium. She tells IMC that she gives them "on rent" to beggar gangs. "I give them opium," she explains. "The youngest stays with me, while the other two are given to women who give me half their earnings in return," she adds. It is for the children that people give arms, Zainab thinks. "Otherwise no one will help us," she says despairingly.
Nearly half of Afghanistan's estimated 27 million people live on less than 1 USD a day, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has calculated.
Karima, a mother of seven, is both a street food seller and beggar. What of her husband? He's addicted to narcotics and jobless, she says. "I cook Bulani and sell it in the bazaar. Later in the day I take along two or three of my children, and seek alms near Ashiqan and Arefan shrine, or next to Pol e Kheshti mosque," she says. She admits to giving her children opium, and giving two of them to two other women in her group of beggars who don't have children. "We are 12 women in this area. I take one child and two other women take my 8-year-old daughter and one and a one-and-a-half-year-old son. In the evening, when we are going home, we divide whatever food and money that we have got."
Karima says she earns at least 400 Afs (7 USD) on her own. "I get some money from renting my children," she adds.
General Mohammad Zahir, the security commander of Kabul, confirms children are drugged on opium by beggars. He insists his department is rounding up beggars "every night" - an act he believes is humane because "when they (beggars) see the opportunity and safety (in poor homes) they are happy". He did not give more details.
Mohammad Bilal Siddiqi, deputy head of advocacy for child rights at the AIHRC, says interviews with children of beggars who were rounded up reveal "they (children) are being coerced to beg".
"There are many instances of beggar children being bought and sold, and incomes earned through them," he says. "There are some professional people who use the children as economic tools," he adds.
Najibullah Babrakzai, a coordinator for child rights at AIHRC, says: "That children sleep from 8 am to 4 pm is evidence they are being given narcotics. It is really a crime." The Commission has raised the issue with the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in meetings on beggar children, but "they have paid little attention", he says.
Influx of foreigner
Only some beggars are locals. "Some are needy locals, begging out of compulsion," says Babrakzai. Another category is of "seasonal beggars", he points out. Those who travel to cooler climes in the summer months, and vice-versa in the winter months. IMC interviewed a third group: Pakistanis who come to Kabul, and other Afghan cities, in the summer to beg.
Sakina who speaks Dari with great difficulty says she is from Baluchistan in Pakistan. Financial problems drove her to Kabul to beg on the streets, she says. IMC met her in Kota Sangi. "Our income is good," she says with self-assurance. "In the winter we go back to Baluchistan."
Farooq has come from Sindh in Pakistan. His one leg and hand are disabled. "I don't have food at home that is why I come here to beg," he told IMC.
Kabul residents are suspicious of these "foreign" beggars.
Shopkeeper Mohammad Daud in Mariam Bazaar, Khairkhana, says he's seen them descend on the market in vehicles. At night they gather again around Khesht Hokhtif area, and are taken back by vehicles. "I believe the police collect bribes from them as well, or they should be rounded up as ordered by the anti-begging Commission."
A police commander in Deh Afghanan who didn't want his name revealed says he has "removed them many times but they come again". He calls foreigners begging on Kabul streets "commercial beggars". "Their number is not known; you can see them everywhere in the city," he adds.
Khuja Mir who is disabled and forced to beg for survival in the Lesa Maryam (Maryam High School) area, confides "Pakistani beggars are paid a salary in their country". "One of them told me he earns 15,000 Pakistani rupees (140 USD). Whatever they earn here is given to the company that brings them here," he says.
Hawker Sayed Mohammad in Mekroryan Market says he sees more Pakistani beggars in summer time. "Begging is a business for all of them. Our government doesn't do anything about it," he laments.
Waheed who sells vegetables in Mekroryan claims he saw a bus from "Bi Bi Mahro area drop beggars. At 8 pm some 40 beggars gather in the Qala Jangi area. The bus comes again, and takes them back."
An activist, Mohammad Anwar Maidanwal, thinks people's concerns should be addressed, and the government should find out "who the real beggars are, and who works for whom?" He thinks those who are employed by mafia should be handed over to the police. "The prestige and honour of Afghans is at stake," he feels.
Passing the buck
Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Wasel Noor Mohmand refused to comment until he had confirmed documentary evidence of beggar gangs, and children being drugged for begging.
IMC investigations show a beggar earns a little more than a daily wage worker in Kabul, which is 300 to 350 Afs (5 to 6 USD). Many beggars are disabled, including those from Pakistan. The Pakistani embassy turned down requests to be interviewed.
The National Security Department in an email reply to IMC, writes: "The Pakistani beggars, it is obvious from their physical status, are not coming by themselves rather they are taken to Afghanistan by groups and abused. The National Security Department doesn't have documents that the Pakistani beggars might be intelligence agents for others but there is a possibility that the disabled beggars would be tools of some organisations."
General Zahir, security commander in Kabul, however, thinks foreigners begging on the streets of Kabul have come in legally to earn money. "Kabul police always round them up, and send them to their country. Unfortunately our consulates, since they are from countries with good relations, give them visas, and they come and beg here," he says without naming any country.
General Zahir could not show documents to prove the involvement of beggars in spying, but he confirmed they were organised. "There are special houses for these beggars that are provided secretly," he says. "They stay indoors at night and come on the roads in the day time. They give money to those who bring them here, which is a big crime. Some have been arrested, and deported. The arrests will continue."
Mohammad Zaher Koshan, in-charge of poor houses in Kabul, insists, "Only one out of 10 beggars rounded up by police are really poor."
The Afghan Red Crescent Society, which was part of the anti-begging commission established in 2009, has been hamstrung by a funds crunch. AIHRC's Siddiqi acknowledged money was the problem for the slowdown in attempts to end street begging.
Deputy Minister Mohmand told IMC the draft of a new law prepared by the Red Cross, Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and others has been sent to the office of the second vice president. "Most beggars who were arrested restarted begging, and the lack of a law was what created a problem," says Koshan, in-charge of Kabul's poor houses.
National Assembly representatives blame corruption for the problem of begging. "If those responsible round up beggars from the street, take action against those who abuse their children, I don't think they would repeat the crime," says Shukria Paikan, Member of Parliament (MP) from Kunduz.
(*) Independent Media Consortium is a joint initiative of Pajhwok Afghan News, The Killid Group (radio and print media), Saba Media Organisation (Saba TV-Radio Nawa networks) and Hasht-e-Subh. This is the 11th of a series of investigative reports on corruption and human rights cases.
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