Investigative Report by Ahmed Al-Rabeehy and Hassan Al-Nassery
It was really an unforgettable autumn day that can never escape a young girl’s memory. ‘Hala’ was standing with her father at the doorstep of their house in Dially Governorate, north east of Baghdad. While looking at her, her father was stretching his hand to grab a black bag offered to him by a strange visitor. An hour later, she was pushed with her brother into the back seat of a pickup vehicle waiting a few meters away from their small rural house. The last phrase uttered by their father was, “Go home with your new parent”.
The black bag contained five million Iraqi Dinars, the price of a young girl’s entity, freedom and childhood. “Her father sold her to pay back his debts and extricate himself from dearth”, Hala said. This innocent girl was born and brought up in a region suffering throughout the last two decades from bereavement and marginalization. It was one of the hot spots of sectarian strife and then turned overnight into a wave of terrorism perpetrated by the militants of the so-called ‘Islamic State’, in Arabic ‘Daesh’.
That day, the 12-year old girl could not absorb what was happening. Being desperately helpless, she kept crying and screaming with her brother, striking the window pane of the vehicle moving towards the capital Baghdad. As for their heartbroken mother, she could do nothing but yelling while sitting on the floor at her husband’s feet begging him to stop the deal of selling her kids to beggary gangs running houses for sheltering paupers in several governorates of Iraq.
‘Hala’ spends her whole day at one of the intersections of the capital Baghdad, wearing a black worn out cloak with a torn scarf of the same color covering her head. She holds a mop and a glass cleaner bottle to clean the windscreen of the cars stopping at the traffic lights for 1,000 Iraqi Dinars (80 US cents) or a quarter of that small amount. As for her brother, Mohammed, who is two years younger than her, he sells tissue boxes, making not less than 25,000 Iraqi Dinars ($20) daily.
Four years of separation and miserable life spent on the streets and pavements of the capital are quite enough to make such an innocent child forget all the details of her previous life. But she still remembers her father, who had lost one of his legs by a ground mine left after the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s of the last century. He was unfit to work and the only source of income left for them was selling the vegetables grown in their small garden.
The author of this investigation made many failed attempts to reach the family of ‘Hala’, the eldest daughter of a family consisting of two other girls and a boy. The national and sectarian conflict among the Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish Arabs living in this eastern governorate, together with the extremist groups operating actively there, all eventually led to several series of immigration operations.
Beggary Gangs’ Ways
Beggary in Iraq is practiced by vagabonds through several ways at the traffic lights of main public squares. Bad quality of tissue boxes are sold there, and most often motorists prefer to give beggars money for nothing. They are also used to cleaning cars’ windscreens and begging for money under the pretext of being immigrants from the hot areas suffering from military operations, whereas others carry medical reports indicating they are inflicted by chronic diseases.
While‘Hala’ and her brother Mohamed make money, six other children including ‘Hassan Al-Mouselli’ are also begging not far away from them. ‘Hala’ thinks he was brought from one of the refugee camps. Other four adults are also begging in the very same place. Meanwhile, someone in charge of them is standing nearby to keep a close eye on their work. By the end of every workday, all of them are accompanied to their shelter in the area of ‘Bataween’, downtown Baghdad to join dozens of other fellow beggars.
This report reveals, through a five-month investigation and follow up effort, how beggary networks are run, not only in the capital Baghdad, but also in a number of other Iraqi governorates by dedicated gangs. It discloses how human trafficking operations and transactions for purchasing children from disadvantaged families are carried out, and how such victims are exploited by a number of beggary networks, and how children are kidnapped for the very same purpose.
It also investigates the procedures taken by the government to fight such a trade and encircle the beggary phenomenon which has largely escalated over the past ten years or so.
Gypsies, from Dancing to Beggary
At the intersection of Aqabba Square, east of Al-Karaada, downtown the capital Baghdad, ‘Naglaa’ is seen moving among the vehicles stopping at traffic lights. The author of this investigative report intended to stop at that traffic lights more than seven times using different vehicles, lest he would be monitored by those abusing ‘Naglaa’. He managed to speak with her five running times for about 5-7 minutes each time.
Despite being young, Naglaa’, who does not exceed 12 years of age, ‘dyes her hair yellow. She speaks Arabic but in gypsy dialect or rather the well-known ‘Al-Karg’ accent used by this sect in Mosul. She was seen during the seven days monitored by the author of this investigation wearing the very same clothes.
A large group of gypsies, who used to inhabit the village of ‘Al-Sahaggi’, 20 km west of Mosul, immigrated to the city. That actually happened after ‘Al-Qaeda’ Organization and other extremist militant groups imposed more and more power there after the year 2004. They had no option but beggary as a means of livelihood after being prevented from singing and dancing.
Large numbers of gypsies were concentrated in ‘Al-Nabbi Younis’ region, east of Mosul, after being chased by the extremist organization and forced to leave their place, whereas others left for the capital Baghdad and other areas downtown the city. They resorted to beggary within organized groups inside the city, under the supervision of gangs taking control of beggary operations and securing their protection and shelter. They provide them with very little money in return for receiving all the monies collected from beggary.
According to what ‘Naglaa’ says, she has been brought to Baghdad together with her sister, who is four years older than her, by their uncle. She is forced to do such an exhausting work all days without a single day off. Her uncle also goes out for beggary together with his wife, who is always seen carrying her daughter on her shoulder to win the sympathy of the passers-by in ‘Al-Karada’ area downtown the capital.
‘Naglaa’, whose right palm is badly covered with skin eruptions, assures that her parents are still in the city of Mosul, 405 km north of the capital Baghdad. She herself lives in ‘Al-Sadoun’, one of the areas downtown the capital, which is about (3) km away from the location of the traffic lights she is used to do her work at. She says her parents visit her and her sister from time to time. They are also taking beggary as a means of living in their residence place.
Two other male beggars, not exceeding 14 years of age, declined to give any more information about ‘Naglaa’. Being asked several times about her, made them astonished to the extent that they threatened to tell the ‘Sheikh’ about our repeated questions.
Iraq recorded in the course of the last ten years a high rate of poverty amounting to roughly (15-22%), whereas income rate of individuals is not more than ($ 7000) per year at the very most. This is actually accompanied by a large increase of the unemployment rate that reached as high as 30% in some years as per the statistics of the Planning Ministry.
Statistics and Figures of Poverty Rate in Iraq (Info graphic)
Major ‘Adel Maher’, alias name, a societal police officer, revealed to the author of this investigation, the existence of gangs who are particularly involved in child trafficking with the objective of using them as beggars. They most often purchase children from hot areas taking advantage of their paucity or loss of their supporters.
He added that the capital Baghdad is the destination of the majority of children purchased from some governorates and that most of the human trafficking gangs, who have their supportive arms in almost all governorates, operate within the geographic area of the capital.
That very information was later on confirmed by Brigadier General ‘Khaled Al-Mehna’, director of Societal Police, who affirmed the existence of large establishments directly operating with beggary gangs. He added that such gangs are supported by lawyers employed to defend the beggars legally, if necessary. According to him, such establishments had already been monitored, personalized, documented and also located. He referred to the fact that such documented data would soon be submitted to the leaders of the Interior Ministry to take the necessary approvals required before waging a large campaign to detain beggary gangs and bring them to justice .
The reporter of this investigation managed to go through some ‘classified’ information that reveals that beggary management gangs are now directly dealing with some lawyers’ offices and some bogus civil societal establishments to secure the legal security of the beggars operating under their control in return for financial commissions. Such offices and establishments secure the release of beggars and gangsters in case of being incarcerated by the security apparatuses.
The lawyers of such legal offices take the best advantage of some legal gaps in the course of their pleadings before the courts to secure the release of those apprehended on bails. Meanwhile, they establish wide scale relations with some officers working with the security apparatuses, particularly with those responsible for chasing paupers, to capitalize upon their influence in the release of their detainees.
In the course of his disclosure, Major ‘Maher’ said that such gangs occupy well-known places to shelter the children being purchased and employed in beggary. Those running such places provide food and shelter for the innocent children falling into their clutches, who are then distributed among the districts and streets of the capital Baghdad to practice beggary from 7 a.m. till their return to their den in the evening.
Beggary Operators and Distribution of Domination Areas
Every few tens of meters along the pavement stretching from ‘Al-Rasheed’ street, downtown Baghdad. to ‘Al-Shorgga’ area, which is one of the largest commercial centers in the capital Baghdad and ‘Bab Al-Mouazam’, black covered women beggars can be seen sitting everywhere, while carrying young children (1-4 years of age) to win the sympathy and pity of the passers-by.
A pauper called ‘Om Farat’ was used to beg all the year round in some selected locations in ‘Al-Rasheed’ Street. She is wearing her black ‘Niqab’, veiling all her face and body, something that prevents anyone to identify her identity or age.
She said while pulling her cloak to cover her whole body, “It was in 2012 when I started begging to support my four kids after my husband had been killed in an explosion perpetrated in ‘Al-Bab Al-Sharggy’ region, downtown Baghdad.”. After the death of her spouse, ‘Om Farat’, who was orphanated after losing both parents, remained lonely in this life without any supporter. Her deceased husband’s family failed to offer her any help to support her three children, despite her repeated appeals. Neither did her brother render her any assistance after immigrating abroad.
‘Om Farat’ rents a house located on the eastern edges of the capital. She earns around 65,000 Iraqi dinars from begging, but she is coerced into giving half of that amount to ‘Abu Ahmad’, who controls the begging operation in this area.
An intelligence security source in Al-Shorga region, who asked not to mention his name, confirmed that there are (70) paupers working in that area, (50) of whom are directly operating under Abu-Ahmad control. He is used to transfer them in the morning in a KIA vehicle carrying 12 passengers from Al-Bataween region, and after the shops close their doors and market activity in the area comes to an end at 4.00 p.m. he drives them back home in groups.
‘Abu Ahmad’ forces the other beggars in the region to hand him half of their daily earnings. Anyone who dares to refuse paying his share to him is prevented from begging and expelled from the whole area. In return, he provides the beggars working under his supervision with shelter and food. The beggary money collected is shared between him and those running the shelter houses used by his paupers.
And on estimating that the average amount collected daily by any beggar in that area is roughly (60,000 Iraqi dinars), we find out that ‘Abu Ahmad’ receives about (4,200,000) Iraqi dinars daily, that is equivalent to ( $3,400).
Iraq is facing a high rise in the number of widows and divorcees. Their numbers reached more than a million, in addition to another million orphans, the majority of whom had lost their families during the military and terrorist operations. These figures are stated by ‘Al-Zahra Al-Hindawe’, the spokesman for Iraq’s Planning Ministry.
Statistics & Figures … Widows and Divorcees (info gram)
Arabs and Expats in Pursuit of Beggary
The investigator of this report went through a classified security report revealing the presence of four groups taking pauperism as a profession. This is actually consistent with the information submitted by the director of the societal police, Brigadier General ‘Khaled Al-Mehna’. This report attributed the first group to the inhabitants of the slums located east and south of the capital, whereas the second group is from the immigrants of post 2014. As for the third group, it consists of the families coming from Iraq’s Kurdistan district, who belong to the roots of the gypsies. The fourth group, as the report indicates, includes large numbers of expats, particularly of Syrian, Pakistani and Indian nationalities.
The report indicates that large groups of beggars stay at more than (20) hotels situated in one of the regions downtown the capital Baghdad. The author is reserved about naming such hotels. Some known persons take charge of distributing beggars among their specified places and assigning duties for them.
And as per a security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, there are down the center of the capital Baghdad, in an area not exceeding 2.5 km2, over 1,200 beggars distributed among more than 20 hotels, each of which has (50-60) paupers, who are accommodated in consistent groups consisting of (3-5) in each room, according to the familial relations between them.
‘Yasser’, a hotelier who has been working full-time in one of these hotels for over 5 years, says that someone is renting the hotel to accommodate groups of paupers and two meals (breakfast and lunch) consisting most often of rice and gravy are served for them in large bowls.
‘Hisham Al-Zahabby’, director of the Creativity Safe Home allocated for homeless children, conducted several studies on homeless children. He divided them into two categories, the first of which forms 80% is abused by their very own families, whereas the children exploited by gangs constitute only 20%.
‘Amir Al-Ebeadi’, a social researcher, points out that between 50% and 60% of the homeless working under the authority of the human trafficking gangs are satisfied with their present status for three reasons, the first of which stems from the process of the complete surrender of the victims to their gladiator, on being all the time subjected to terror and torture operations that are capable of forcing them to give up. The second reason is that their conscious and subconscious minds got acclimatized and familiarized with the beggary process. The last cause is the absence of safe havens capable of securing them honorable livelihood if they make up their minds to run away from those gangs.
The aforementioned security report refers to a number of bars and hotels in Al-Kazemeya region, north of Baghdad, which accommodate beggars of Indian and Pakistani nationalities. Meanwhile, the security authority which wrote this report referred that the large majority of the immigrant beggars were staying inside the refugee makeshift camps located in the two regions of Abu Ghareeb and Al-Dawra, south and west of Baghdad. But now they are staying in some scattered areas in the capital following the vacation of most refugee camps, soon after the liberation of the cities occupied by ISIS ‘Daesh’.
Mafias Mightier Than Security Apparatuses
‘Saad Mahn’, the spokesman for the Interior Ministry, pointed out to the author of this investigation that some groups and mafias are supervising the work of beggars in Baghdad. He revealed that such gangs protect their beggars from the security apparatuses which proved to be incapable of preventing the beggary phenomenon or putting an end to it. This is due to the spread of poverty and homelessness throughout the country. All they can do is preventing beggars from approaching the security establishments and circles due to public security reasons.
A colonel in Baghdad security operations, who refused to mention his name, warned against the ‘organized crime’ practiced by some beggars and their association with the beggary network gangs. He confirmed that several beggars charged with theft, murder and other crimes were incarcerated.
In the same context, Abeer Al-Galbby, director of Child Welfare Corporation, affiliated with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, warns against the escalation of the beggary phenomenon. She also sounded the alarm bell against the terrorist groups which take beggary as a façade to provide coverage for their elements and camouflage in the practice of pauperism.
Captain ‘S. M.’, who works with the intelligence apparatus, says to the writer of this investigation, “The intelligence apparatus possesses complete information about the beggars as per a data base operated through permanent surveillance and investigation. Our work is focused mainly on chasing organized gangs operating in this sphere and monitoring any association that may occur between the terrorist groups such as ‘ISIL’ or its affiliates and some beggars, who might be somehow exploited by them.”
‘Fadhel Abu Ragheef’, an expert on the extremist groups’ affairs, warned against the progression of the beggary phenomenon, and the rising number of beggars wandering in the streets of Iraqi cities, a state of affairs that constitutes a possible security hazard. Beggars might be manipulated by terrorist groups and organized crimes gangs alike. What is worse is that the elements of criminal gangs might camouflage under the beggary coverage within the residential regions, monitor houses and their owners and commit crimes of theft and murder.
Abu Ragheef pointed out that one of the elements of the terrorist organizations was arrested while being camouflaged himself as a beggar in one of the streets downtown the capital. That happened after he had committed assassination operations using a soundless pistol hidden below a gypsum splint covering his hand.
And as per the intelligence security reports examined by the preparer of this report, the extremist organizations created after the collapse of Iraq’s Baath regime in 2003, particularly ‘Al-Qaeda’ Organization, took advantage of pauperism over years, particularly in the city of Mosul and exploited it as a façade camouflaging the movement of its elements and the perpetration of terror operations, especially assassination operations using adhesive explosives, and collection of information about the government institutions and movement of individuals. Meanwhile, some handicapped beggars were exploited to commit suicidal operations.
Beggars in Iraq….Geographic Distribution and Nationalities (Info graphic)
Having pulled up the sleeves of his black shirt, he began to touch the small round burns scattered on his left hand. He started to describe how cigarette ends were extinguished on his bare skin anytime he collects less than 50,000 Iraqi dinars at the end of his workday.
The above victim here is referred to as ‘Tameem Al-Tanny, the name of his tribe in Ninwa. His stubbornness pushed him to stand against his abusers and challenge them by fleeing their miserable den, exposing himself to their severe punishment as he says. He does not actually want to bring to his memory the misery he experienced for four long years in beggary, after his father had transferred him to the capital Baghdad and left him with one of the beggary gangs. But he managed to escape from the gang and make his way to the city of ‘Karbalaa’, where he sought the help of some men of religion, who secured him a source of livelihood and a simple residence place consisting of a single room and other service facilities.
At a small shop situated in one of the streets of ‘Karblaa’ governorate, 108 km south of the capital Baghdad, the author of this investigation met the 19 years old young man ‘Tameem’, who said to him, “I wish I could ever know how much money my father received for selling me to such monsters”.
It is noteworthy that Iraq’s judiciary examined over the last years many human trafficking cases, the most of which were about parents selling their children to gangs involved in beggary and prostitution. Registered figures indicate that the price paid for purchasing a child ranges between a minimum of 6 million Iraqi dinars and a maximum of 15 million Iraqi dinars. The justification given every time by parents is just, ‘for living cost reasons’.
The Supreme Judiciary Council issued a statistics for the year 2017, confirming that the courts concerned with human trafficking crimes examined around 200 cases of selling children, including 110 males and 90 females, the majority of which are in the capital Baghdad.
The spokesman for the Supreme Judicial Council, Abdul Sattar Beraqdar, states in a press release examined by the author of this investigation, that the council discusses the application of the human trafficking law on the cases of beggary and harlotry so as to impose the strictest legal procedures and punishments against the criminals committing such crimes and accountability for beggars’ parents.
Director of Commuunal Police, Khaled Almehna, attributed the existing failure in controlling the beggary phenomenon in the country to the weakness of the legal articles governing beggary. He views them as ‘non deterrent, due to the fact that the accused is simply released by the judge on bail, and then go back to practice beggary again and again’.
And according to some judicial experts met by the author, the judiciary most often deals with beggary cases in an extenuating way without including them within the jurisdiction of delinquency cases. This is because it is sufficient for the judge to take a pledge from the beggar’s guardian if he is a juvenile and then releases him after payment of a bail or a fine ranging from half to one million dinars (for adults). This depends on the judge’s evaluation of each and every case. The accused is also asked to sign a pledge never to return to beggary again. In the meantime, the judge can, at his discretion, transfer the beggar to a mental hospital or any shelter home if he or she is repeatedly caught for beggary, but this only happens in very seldom cases.
Hisham Al-Zahabby, a civil activist, attributes the escalation of the beggary phenomenon in the country to ‘the absence of deterring legal articles criminalizing beggary or at least imposing inhibitive penalties to put an end to this phenomenon. That is why all the campaigns waged by the concerned apparatuses to gather street children fail,’
A security source, who asked to be unknown, discloses that beggars and their employers take advantage of the legal gaps to escape justice. All beggars, locals and expat alike, deliberately avoid carrying any official documents proving their identities. A state of affairs that makes officials in police stations refuse to receive beggars detained by the other security apparatuses, mainly because the arrest of such paupers most often happens without legal warrant arrests.
The Ministry of Labor referred, through its spokeswoman ‘Abeer Al-Galbbi, to the fragility of the government role in treating the beggary phenomenon. This is due to the fact that there are only two rehabilitation homes in the capital Baghdad, one for males and the other for females, within the juvenile correction center. However, having the homeless and beggars accommodated in these shelter homes necessitates a judicial decision.
The author of this investigation, camouflaged in ragged clothes, did some make up, wrapped his left hand with a medical bandage and finally added some red dye to his hand to make it look like injured. Having done this disguise, he attempted to find himself a place at more than three main traffic lights locations downtown the capital Baghdad (at the intersections Al-Tayran, Al-Andlus, and Al-Shrouq Building Squares), But he failed to find himself a place there, being expelled not by beggars but by other persons who are difficult to be noticed. They always watch the beggars under their control from afar to interfere if any strange beggar dares to work in their locations or in case of any other accident or emergency.
However, the investigator managed at last to find a place in ‘Al-Sank’ market, downtown the capital, where car accessories and spare parts are sold. After around three hours and a half spent by him, wandering among the shops, he managed to collect 37,500 dinars ($31)
‘Beggary’, a live experience by the two authors of this investigation in one of Baghdad’s markets (video)
Only Obedience and Money
A large number of the beggars working in the capital streets refuse accepting any material aid such as food or drink or even clothes. A female named ‘Saga’ (20 years +), says, when the preparer of this report attempted to give her a black cloak, that she cannot accept it. “Where on earth can I wear it? I have never worn clean clothes for more than eight years”, she said.
‘Saga’, who is used to stand at the exit gate of one of the petrol stations, east of Baghdad, says while looking right and left, “ I have thought of committing suicide several times, but the fear of leaving my 4 years old daughter alone in this ‘ferocious world’ prevents me to do so”. She adds while withdrawing away, “Please don’t approach me anymore. I don’t want any problem for me or for my daughter”.
In this context, Hisham Al-Zahabby says, ‘No one can define the number of beggars in Baghdad or in the other governorates, in the absence of any official or unofficial statistics. We cannot figure out such a large number of beggars moving among alleys, main streets and markets. All we can be sure of is that their number is escalating noticeably”.
Nevertheless, some non-governmental organizations in Mosul refer to the existence of around 6200 orphans in Ninwa solely, 3300 of whom lost their fathers and other relatives during the war. Most of them take beggary as a source of livelihood, whereas some orphans face the threat of falling victims into the clutches of human trafficking gangs, and others turn into time bombs in the cruel hands of terrorist groups, which returned to practice their terror in Ninwa.
‘Eyad Ahmad’, a civil activist, cautions against the exploitation of homeless children who had lost their parents and close relations during the attacks. They can be abused by ISIL ‘Daesh’ or by human trafficking gangs, if the government fails to interfere through endorsing a wide scale program for their rescue.
Ahmad says that the war produced thousands of orphans and homeless people, some of whom practice beggary and they might be kidnapped and transferred to other governorates by beggary gangs. He points out that the price of a 4-year old child hired by beggars ranges from 10,000 to 25,000 dinars and this phenomenon has largely spread because adult women prefer to carry a child during their work.
After nightfall, downtown the capital Baghdad, and when rain began to strike the car windscreen, the author of this investigation caught sight of ‘Hala’, sitting on the edge of a sidewalk, waiting as it seems for the vehicle that would drive her back home. She was hugging her younger brother Mohamed. She is used to keep a close eye on him lest he would be exposed to any sort of violence at the hands of his employers or by his fellow beggars.
At this very moment, she approached the car while holding the hand of her brother, and popped her head inside the window pane, saying, “Sir, can my father sell my remaining two sisters or one of them if he needs money once again ?”.
‘Hala’ has no desire to be back with her father even if she can do so. But she still dreams of meeting her mother. The details of her face are still hanging persistently in her memory. She said while wiping her teary eyes, “She loved me all the time. She is the only person in this world that loved me “.
This investigation was achieved with the support of the Network of Iraq Investigative Journalism “NIRIJ”