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Critics flay plans to ban begging

Government plans to remove all beggars from Afghanistan's streets have raised concerns that some families will be unable to survive if the move is followed through.

Mawjuda begs on a street in Kabul with Nazar and Parmena, who she said were her children.
Mawjuda begs on a street in Kabul with Nazar and Parmena, who she said were her children.

KABUL // Government plans to remove all beggars from Afghanistan's streets have raised concerns that some families will be unable to survive if the move is followed through. A statement issued by the president's office this month announced the ban, saying it was being introduced to "respect human dignity" and "ensure social order". Under the scheme, those beggars deemed genuinely poor will be sent to orphanages or shelters, where they will be offered the chance of taking educational and vocational courses with the potential for future employment. Anyone regarded as faking their poverty could be arrested.

However, critics have warned that the plan is unrealistic and impossible to enforce without having an adverse effect on the most destitute. From behind her burqa, Mawjuda said she was 20 and had been begging since the age of 16 or 17. She sounded barely older than the boy and girl sitting in the dirt with her, who she claimed were her son and daughter. "How can we survive if the government stops us begging in the street? We don't like doing this and if they give us food and land, then we will stop," she said, adding that she lives in a tent.

Although the exact number of beggars in Afghanistan is not known, they are a common sight in the capital. Most are usually kids, disabled, women or the elderly. The government is adamant that the ban is designed to help all concerned. As well as providing work opportunities to the poor, it hopes to reduce crime and clean up urban areas including Kabul. According to one senior official tasked with enforcing the order, action was needed sooner rather than later.

"Day by day the beggars are increasingly disturbing people in the street," said Wasil Noor Muhmand, deputy minister at the ministry of labour, social affairs, martyrs and disabled. Of particular interest to the government are those it believes are fabricating their hardship. These include women who can occasionally be found cradling what seem to be injured babies swaddled in bloodied bandages. On closer inspection, the wounds are often phoney.

"We have three types of beggars in Afghanistan, especially in Kabul," Mr Muhmand said. "First, some of them are very weak people responsible for the income of their families. Second, some are doing it for business - begging is the skill they use to earn an income. Third are those beggars who are made to do it." The government will spend three months explaining the plan to the general public in an effort to advertise precisely what is being done. Yet given the scale of the problem and the litany of crises Afghanistan is struggling to deal with, few believe any of this will have the desired impact.

Mohammed Yousef is the director of ASCHIANA, a non-governmental organisation that helps street kids suffering from the consequences of war and poverty. He said the initiative was a good idea in principle "but we should also think about the reality and in reality it will not be possible". According to Mr Yousef, there are between 60,000 and 70,000 street children working in Kabul alone. Selling everything from chewing gum to newspapers, or shining shoes and cleaning car windows, they are not classed as beggars even though their income is very little.

National unemployment is also astronomically high, with some estimates putting it at about the 50 per cent mark. Meanwhile, a UK think tank recently warned that winter food shortages represent a greater threat to international development in Afghanistan than the insurgency. In the west of Kabul city, Halima was begging with her four-year-old son, Sabir. Her husband begs in another part of town and it is, she said, the only way they can survive.

"We don't have anything to eat, we don't have money, we don't have a place to stay. Even this morning I didn't have breakfast," the mother-of-three said. "What about our children? If the government stops us and doesn't help, we will just come back." @Email:csands@thenational.ae