Where Do The Children Play?
By: Nancy Razzouk
Published Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Under orders from the Lebanese Interior Minister, the Internal Security Forces have begun a campaign to crack down on child beggars on the streets of Beirut.
A common sight in Lebanon, child beggars wait at intersections for cars to stop in traffic jams or at red lights. Suddenly, dozens of kids surround a car, pushing their small faces to the windows.
They mutter incomprehensible words they seemed to have learned by heart. They follow the car as soon as it starts moving, trying to keep pace, and end up running after it until it disappears into the distance.
These kids beg. Others try to sell gum, cigarettes, flowers, lottery tickets, and cheap knock-off perfumes. Sometimes they beg, sometimes they steal and sometimes they cry. Most run off in the other direction as soon as they see a camera or a policeman approaching.
The street children seem to form a kind of special bond with the sidewalks. At the Chalouhi intersection, 11-year-old Zainab sells sesame sweets. She has been begging and selling sweets for years.
She accompanies her four siblings to "work" every morning from 8 until sunset. She makes between 50,000 Lebanese Lira (LL) (US$33) and LL150,000 ($100) a day. She does not know why she never went to school. She had heard about it, but says that "work is more important."
On the other side of the street, a young man stands politely next to a car, peddling food containers and pieces of cloth. He claims he is a student at the Lebanese University and is active in the "campaign against the Syrian vendors."
The company he supposedly represents does not have a name, and neither does the source of the products that he offers to sell at a 90 percent discount.
The young man and the girl are examples of the many children roaming the streets or moving from one car to the next. Some try to earn a living to feed their families, or perhaps to gain the approval of their "father," who monitors them closely. They all have one thing in common, "All of us are forced to beg."
The police stand by, watching. General Ashraf Rifi, director of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), has issued orders to combat the trend of child beggars and street vendors, upon the instructions of Minister of Interior and Municipalities, Marwan Charbel.
Rifi ordered police precincts to be strict, to arrest the children and place them in suitable social institutions.
But the problem lies in the difficulty of turning theory into practical action.
A security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the main obstacle hindering the police's task is seeing the process through to completion.
"Security forces began arresting the beggars, but found nowhere to put them," he said. "There is no place that can accommodate even a small number, let alone all of them."
He added that the police recently "arrested seven child beggars and had to jail them with adults, although it is against the law." Authorities then released five of them "after an employee at the Social Affairs Ministry told me that there is no space for them," he said.
Another Internal Security officer involved in removing beggars from the streets confirmed the problem. He said that "the solution is a complete package that cannot be separated. The security forces' responsibility is restricted to pulling the kids off the streets. After that, it becomes the responsibility of the Social Affairs Ministry."
He held the Interior and Social Affairs ministries responsible for issuing a "random decision to collect children from the streets without a serious assessment of what this decision entails."
Lawyers and judges say that a key obstacle they face in the cases of child beggars is the absence of an "employment agency" required by law, which would benefit the homeless and beggars after they are sentenced in court.
Social Affairs Minister Wael Abou Faour denied the security officer's statement. He said that begging "has significantly declined and, consequently, so has the rate of street children."
He added that social institutions "are doing their duty, although some are not equipped to accommodate the huge number of children."
Abou Faour spoke about another problem emerging when dealing with unidentified children without legal guardians, stressing that security and tracking action is only the beginning of solving the problem.
"The remedy is to punish the adults and criminalize the mafia that stands behind this trend," the minister said.
According to articles 617 and 618 of the Penal Code, anyone convicted of pushing a minor to beg receives a seven-year minimum sentence.
Abou Faour's remarks indicate that the state is incapable of accommodating all the street kids, especially with the increasing number of displaced Syrians.
He called on citizens not to give money to beggars and revealed a "media campaign to be soon launched by the ministry to raise awareness that giving those children serves their operators and organized crime, not the children."
Meanwhile, Elie Mikhael, secretary general of the Higher Council of Childhood, said that "combating the trend of street children falls under a comprehensive social policy."
He said that the rights of the child do not endorse the institutionalization option because "putting children in an institution and separating them from the parents is the wrong choice, except in special cases."
Mikhael added that although around 11 institutions work with the Social Affairs Ministry, most of them are going through financial crises because of their reduced budgets."
Mikhael added that work is underway on a comprehensive project to handle the problem. "We are in the process of sending a preventive plan to the ministry that will be announced soon," he said.
He explained that the plan aims to put the problem in a legal framework, with focus on specific points such as providing vocational training, compulsory education, and rehabilitation, in addition to restoring control over Lebanon’s borders.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.