Preying on poverty

29 Nov 2018
POSTED BY Ashlee Starratt

Like vultures eyeing their prey, these men and women gather around places of worship such as mosques, churches, and temples to touch the hearts of believers to make a quick buck.

It is these people who lie behind the root cause of Oman’s begging problem – and according to some experts, they don’t even have to break sweat to earn money, the amount of which can exceed the daily wages of a medium- to high-level manager here in the Sultanate.

There are reportedly 2,000 beggars currently behind bars awaiting deportation back to their home countries but anywhere between 3,000 and 5,000 are still pulling the wool over people’s eyes in the Sultanate.

To test this theory, we head to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque on a busy day – Friday – after afternoon prayers. While the grounds are heavily monitored by security guards, there are sections in the parking lots that are often unpatrolled.

And that is where the scam takes place.

It doesn’t take us longer than five minutes to stumble upon our first one. Backed up to the end of the parking lot, the Pakistani expat’s eyes must have lit up seeing us get out of a green-plate Audi SUV (our test-drive car from last week).

He immediately comes towards us. Wearing an exposed bloodied bandage on his shoulder, he begins by asking us if we speak English or Hindi.

“English,” we mumble, with the question of whether or not he is indeed a needy victim still preying on our minds – and he begins explaining (in rather excellent English) about how he was mistreated by his local employer and had to run away from him.

He even presents us with a laminated card that reads in Arabic. However, that’s the first sign that means a red flag. The card, which is seemingly issued by one of the top private hospitals in the country, has no stamp of authorisation.

Otherwise, no one would think twice before opening their wallet.

His torn and bloodied shirt, worn-out sandals, and his stained trousers all emanate a sense of desperation – we even find ourselves in two minds over whether or not  to pay up.

After about 10 minutes of what we like to think is a stern interrogation, we pay him RO5 – which clearly didn’t impress him. He asks us if we can shell out another RO5. We decline, knowing full well that if we’ve been scammed, we have just lost our money.

We then proceed onwards to the left wing – the most secluded section of the parking lot – hoping for another encounter.

This time around, we’re approached by two well-built men, dressed smartly, with one wearing a watch and what looks like designer shoes – but there is a difference this time: I recognise one from a few times we’d caught him begging near one of the churches in the country.

We’d paid him both times, too.

So even before he begins talking to us, we start by asking him: “Where were you for such a long time (?) We haven’t met since 2016.”

Taken aback, he answers: “Sorry sir, we just moved here recently and were cheated by our sponsor. If you’re a God- fearing person, please help us. Anything you give us now, you will get back 10 times with our blessings.”

We don’t ‘buy’ this, and assert that we paid him back in 2016, twice. He sternly shakes his head and raises his voice: “See, brother. We’re in desperate need of money and it is people like you who are blessed that can help us earn enough for us to fly back home to Pakistan.”

This was his reason the last time around, too.

We immediately flag this and take our phone out to threaten him that we are going to call the Ministry of Social Development (MOSD)’s hotline at 1100.

But he becomes aggressive: “Leave us alone if you don’t want to help us. If you’re not God-fearing people, then at least let us eat and drink from the little that we earn daily.”

Fearing that we shall end up in an altercation, or worse, in a fight; we retreat, keeping in mind a Royal Oman Police (ROP) official’s warning to us that beggars are now carrying knives on them.

The official who wished to remain unnamed also told us during our conversation from last week that, “The begging problem is getting out-of-hand now – and a lot of people are taking advantage of this situation.

“What’s more concerning is that it is expats who are conducting such malpractices – and they don’t really need the money. They’re financially stable but have found resort in begging because it is easy money. But, we are working constantly with the MoSD to rectify this.”

Based on the ROP official, nearly 1,200 beggars had been arrested in Oman in 2017 alone, and nearly 2,000 from this year are still awaiting deportation.

Statistics show that out of those arrested in 2017, only 225 beggars were Omanis (152 males, 73 females), while the rest 927 were expats (569 males, 331 females).

Unsurprisingly, most of those arrested were apprehended during the Holy Month of Ramadan; the month people are considered to be most generous.

The ROP official then said: “We’ve had confessions of beggars earning – well, not exactly earning but cheating people – up to RO60 to RO150 per day. And at the very least, that amounts to RO1,800 – which is more than what people in most managerial positions earn. It’s something very upsetting to hear that someone can extract so much more money from people who earn less just because of their religious duties.

“The hotspots for beggars are usually outside religious buildings, malls, parks, schools – especially after tuition hours when the children flock around shops to buy snacks, and sometimes also residential buildings with no security guard.

“But of late we’re also hearing reports that some building security guards have tie-ups with these beggars, wherein they give them a portion of what they make. It’s the perfect transaction, isn’t it (?)”

“Beggars usually operate in groups and create zones around themselves where they can operate exclusively. There’s also a person who will keep a lookout on these people so as to keep things in check, especially if someone gets too agitated or starts calling the police.”

The official also alerted us about an elaborate scam in Muscat in which a few expat men from Sharjah – all driving an SUV with a woman and a child in it – stop by innocent bystanders and ask for money to head back to the UAE.

“We’re working on stopping this and would like assistance from victims if they recognise the numbers. Also, do not show aggression as they could be armed with weapons – it’s always best to remain on the safe side.

“In such instances, always tell them that you cannot pay them politely, and note their licence plate number. We can then blacklist them from entry into the Sultanate, and at the same time, also catch them at the Oman-UAE border.”

Acknowledging the issue, the MoSD had earlier issued a statement to the public stating that anyone encountering beggars on the street must report them to the ministry by calling the anti-begging hotline at 1100.

The statement further read: “On a daily basis, we see an increase in the number of people begging, especially amongst non-Omanis.

“Such practices are a detriment to Omani society and have other negative impacts. Omani legislation criminalises begging and legal penalties will be imposed on those who do so. Begging is an indictable offence.”

“Giving charity to beggars is an encouragement. [We] kindly request you to advise them that their actions are against the law or report them, because this is everybody’s responsibility. Sharing this message will contribute to reduce begging problems.”

However, as per the ROP official, alerting the beggar about his misdoings should be done politely and without them feeling that you’re calling the authorities. Also, never instigate a physical altercation with them unnecessarily, as that could put you in jail, unless you were trying to protect yourself in the first place.

He’s right. Earlier this year [May 30th], the MoSD issued a report to the Times of Oman newspaper stating that several of their officials had been attacked with knives, especially in the Wilayat of Seeb.

Currently, any Omani, if found begging in public or in private spaces, and caught in the act, will be punished with imprisonment of not less than one month and not exceeding one year, and a fine of not less than RO50 and not more than RO100, as per the Omani Law.

If the Omani beggar repeats the crime, they will receive anywhere between six months and two years of imprisonment.

The laws are different for expats. If the beggar is caught in the act, apart from being fined, they will also be deported from the country.

But none of this has put the plug on the current begging situation in the country – with more people taking up the illegal act and exploiting more residents, daily. As the ROP official stated, it has now become incredibly difficult to catch them as residents – out of pity – won’t alert us about them. Moreover, some are scared to call the police in the fear of being attacked.

To understand more, we speak to a few residents at the Seeb Souq and the Ghala belt – both areas teeming with beggars, with some even operating near prominent hospitals with fake hospital notes.

We can clarify this with Dr. Nadir Hameed al Raisi, a physician with a leading private hospital (due to lack of approvals, we cannot publish the name of the organisation) in the region. He says: “Doctors may issue notes to those who are undergoing severe illnesses but not specifically one that allows the patients to beg for money.

“We usually don’t support the cause, and we’d like to advise everyone to stay away from aiding such malpractices. In most scenarios where the patient must be treated immediately, out of pity we (the doctors) may send messages to people who pledge money to those in need.

“But, we will never allow someone terminally ill to be out on the streets – it’s simply illogical, and if anyone has done that with a logo of our hospital, it must be a fake. Moreover, there are several non-profit organisations and individuals who work towards helping the legitimate patients. So, it’s best for you as a civilian to not encourage such acts.”

To understand more on this, we speak to Rashid al Mamary, a social worker who procures funds for the treatment of both Omani and expat patients in the country. He echoes the doctor’s statements but then goes on to shed light on a much more important topic: children begging on the streets.

“While it is normal to see adults begging in areas such as Muscat and Seeb, in the interior regions, we’re now coming across children begging. And these kids make quite a lot of money for their parents because tourists and other travellers sympathise with them.

“It’s such big an issue now that the children are taken away from the parents and are kept in the child care centres, where the child will be given counselling, and an in-depth study will be made as to why they began begging on the streets in the first place.

“By the parent allowing or forcing their children to do this, not only are they all breaking the law but also putting the child at risk on the streets. If they fall into the wrong hands, they could even be kidnapped – and even if the parent is keeping watch from a distance, it’ll only take the perpetrators a few seconds to take a child into their car and drive away.”

Children begging on the streets are predominantly locals or Yemenis – those who crossed the borders with their families in search of a better life.

But, irrespective of that, the parents of children who are caught begging will be subjected to the law, with some in extreme circumstances being charged with child abuse.

Rashid then exposes another type of child abuse: mothers drugging their children as their husbands drive around in cars begging for money.

“In 2015, we had come across several families – mostly in threes – driving about the streets of Muscat and begging for money. Among several that were busted, we had learnt that they would drug their kids, who were mostly between the ages of one and nine, with sleeping tablets so that they wouldn’t cry or make a commotion that would perhaps cause any form of suspicion in the residents.

“This is a serious concern and will definitely result in the imprisonment of these parents. They need to keep in mind that while administering these medicines back-to-back, the child could overdose and perhaps even die.

“The ROP is on the constant lookout for such cases, and the child will immediately be taken to the protection services – there’s no way such parents should be allowed to keep possession of their children; at least until they learn the seriousness of the act they committed.”

The ministry is taking every possible step to curb the begging issue and embarked on more than 2,000 anti-begging campaigns across the nation last year.

All our efforts to connect with the MoSD are in vain as we receive no response to our queries at the time of publishing.

But while it is clear the ministry is taking every possible step to eradicate this issue, as per our source at the ROP, it is us, the public, that needs to step up.

He tells us: “Most people fail to report such instances to the ministry out of pity or out of lack of interest or of pity. But, it’s our duty to report such cases – because at the end of the day, the chances are that they’re earning more than you and I per day by simply using their words to gain sympathy.

“Not only is this against our religious beliefs but also something that we believe is punishable – if these people [the beggars] don’t realise that now and change their ways, it may just end up being too late for them because begging without the need for it is as good as robbery and extortion.”

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