Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Getting Beggars off the Streets

Law enforcement officials are reluctant to use harsh measures to round up women and children looking for a handout.
By Mohammad Jawad

When the unmarked vehicles pulled up to a bus stop in central Kabul one April morning, it didn't take long for the beggars who frequent the area to spot the official license plates and scurry for cover.

There was no real need for them to run. As with previous police sweeps, most beggars knew they would just be given a verbal warning and released on the spot, unless they had a criminal record.

Since March 25, the authorities have been attempting to reduce the number of beggars on the streets of the capital. Practically every neighbourhood is home to at least one beggar, often a burka-clad woman. Some sit quietly with hands out. Others appear to have collapsed and then request – even demand – money from anyone who offers to help.

The more aggressive beggars follow their targets for several blocks, mumbling in pitiful tones and giving up only when their mark steps into a shop and the merchant ejects them. If the target is a foreigner who offers a small afghani note, it is not uncommon for the beggar to demand payment in dollars.

Police have not been heavy-handed, as long as they determine that the beggars have no criminal records.

Rather than jail those caught begging, police often hand them over to a new commission created primarily to prevent child abuse among beggars.

In one month alone, 107 people were brought to the Commission for the Prevention of Child Abuse, located in a building that also houses a kindergarten.

"We don't have any specific punishment in mind, and we don't want to punish anyone," said Mohammad Aalem Aimaq, the commission’s director. "In order to scare them, we tell them that if they're caught twice, they will be sentenced to three months in prison and fined 10,000 afghanis.”

Beggars with children under eight are released into the custody of their families – if they have relatives – after promising to abandon the practice.

Children who have been subjected to physical or sexual abuse can receive psychological counselling, said Aimaq.

In addition, young people between the ages of eight and 16 who are caught up in such sweeps are also sometimes turned over to the Organisation of Social Helpers of Afghanistan where, with the consent of their families, they can receive training in music, painting, beauty salon work, English language, artificial flower-making and computer skills.

Funded by UNICEF as well as Scandinavian and British charities, the centre has seen 450 street children pass through its doors during four years of operation.

There are only ten teachers at the centre, which currently cares for 370 young people. The 70 picked up in the latest roundups have placed an extra burden on its strained budget.

"The government hasn't put any possibilities into our hands, so at the moment we depend on the charities," said Aimaq. "We're concerned about what we'll do if their aid stops."

Nine-year-old Mohammad Fahim spends his morning making artificial flowers at the centre and said he happy to be in a place where is not looked down upon.

Mohammad said he was forced to take up begging to help support his family, but is glad he is now in a place where he's not reviled.

"It was my parents' fault," he told IWPR. "I was always being told, 'Go and do whatever work you want to do. Bring us money. We don't care how you make it.’”

Many residents of the capital hope these efforts to reduce the number of beggars on the streets succeed.

"We’re sick of these people," said Mohammad Sabir, who drives a van between Kabul and Jalalabad.

Mohammad Jawad Sharifzada is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.