It is a dilemma every time a street vendor offers one of his or her trifles. They are clearly breaking the law - but is there more to this story? The police say the majority of hawkers are illegal immigrants and people should not only avoid but report them.
As The National reported yesterday, officials in Sharjah say the issue of illegal hawkers has reached an epidemic level. The concern? It tarnishes the image of the country.
"Many have either lost their jobs or come to this country to find jobs and could not," said Major General Humaid Mohammed al Hudaidi, the director general of Sharjah Police. "Their visas expired and they became illegals and started offering illegal services."
Raising a concern about vendors is justified; the proper course of action, however, deserves further consideration. On the criminal justice side, street vendors are not licensed and a black market economy can encourage all kinds of other crimes occurring under the radar. Items that unregistered hawkers sell can be stolen, fake or dangerous.
A 1991 federal law is clear on the subject: selling products, collecting charity and cleaning cars on the street are all prohibited.
Sharjah's solution to arrest and deport vendors is therefore justified in a legal sense. But there is a moral dimension as well in cases where individuals and families could use a helping hand to get off the streets. Anecdotal evidence shows that many vendors wander the streets because they are in need, and cannot afford medical bills or living expenses.
When children are involved, as police have recently reported, there are obvious other considerations. Social workers as well as police should be involved to determine if a child is being exploited. The first consideration has to be the welfare of the child in these cases.
Authorities could also consider providing licences for some street vendors, such as food sellers, to help to regulate product quality and where the vendor operates.
The unregulated operations of street vendors - and their often destitute circumstances - do tarnish the image of the country, yet the best solution is not a crackdown, but a case-by-case evaluation.