JEDDAH – We see them swarming between cars while we wait at a red-traffic light on major intersections, they follow us when we step out of crowded supermarkets, and we see them camping out on pavements in residential areas. Young children, women, and sometimes men with missing limbs beg on the streets and we are torn between offering help, or else denying them so that they learn to follow the legal ways of attaining assistance through the official charity organizations in the Kingdom.
Begging on the streets and homelessness is a social problem that persists in even the most developed and affluent countries of the world. It portrays a negative image of the country, contributes to littering and pollution, and poses dangers in communities as well.
Some sociologists in the Kingdom assert that having only eight anti-beggary offices in Saudi Arabia is insufficient to combat this problem. Furthermore, the responsibility for dealing with the issue of begging is repeatedly dropped on different governmental bodies, from the Ministry of Social Affairs to the Ministry of Interior and many others.
The head of the Social, Family and Youth Affairs Committee of the Shoura Council, Talal Al-Bakri, said to Al-Riyadh newspaper, “The Ministry of Social Affairs repeatedly says that it does not have the authority to apprehend beggars. The job of the anti-beggary offices is confined to Saudis caught begging and referring them to the charity organizations with the commitment that they will not return to such illegal actions. As for non-Saudis who do not have an iqama, they are detained and deported to their country of origin at the expense of the government of Saudi Arabia.”
Al-Bakri accuses many security officers of looking the other way and driving right past beggars on the streets pestering people for money.
Stricter regulations and much more effective efforts are needed to eradicate the ills of begging in the Kingdom. The areas where beggars make their daily routes are well-known so it would not be difficult to confront them. In the defense of the security patrol, most begging groups appoint one person to watch out for their patrol vehicles and warn the rest of the beggars to disperse and hide if security personnel make an appearance.
A recent study conducted by the Ministry of Social Affairs revealed that 88 percent of beggars on the Kingdom’s streets are non-Saudi and the majority of them are illegal immigrants. Many of the beggars work on the streets without even trying to conceal themselves in an attempt to get caught and obtain a free flight to their home country. One resident said, “I refuse to give healthy-looking, young men money because he should try to work and earn an honest living without extending his hand out to other people.”
The hazards that threaten the society as a result of widespread begging are more far reaching than first meets the eye.
Awad Al-Radadi, deputy chairman of the Social, Family and Youth Committee at the Shoura Council, said, “The phenomenon of begging poses serious safety risks and social dangers in our communities. There are actually gangs that force women and children into begging and confiscate all the money they are given. Some people take advantage of the kindness and generosity of Muslims and they play on people’s emotions. Other foreigners have perfected the Saudi accent persuade passers-by to give them larger amounts of money. These days it is difficult to differentiate between who is genuinely in need and who is a crook.”
“The phenomenon of begging will carry on as long as citizens and residents keep giving them money and do not report them to security officials. The average citizen means well by offering the beggars money but he or she is unintentionally hindering the community’s safety and stability,” continued Al-Radadi.
“In no way do we want to discourage people from helping the poor, assisting others, and alleviating their suffering. However, we want citizens and residents to be more careful and fully aware that their donation is going to someone who truly deserves and needs it. There are plenty of charity organizations that collect donations and distribute them to families living in poverty.”
Dr. Ahmad Asiri is a social researcher who specializes in criminology and he commented, “The practice of begging in society is not new and many more anti-beggary offices are needed to combat this social disease. Beggars can inflict much harm when they transgress and step over the practice of simply asking for money.
“Beggars who belong to gangs and are concentrated in residential areas closely study the daily schedule of household members of a given villa or apartment, and they know exactly when the house is empty. In many incidents, beggars become involved in home burglaries and robberies, stealing purses from women walking alone and committing theft in shops. Countless other moral and societal ills result from the congestion of beggars in our neighborhoods.”
In Asiri’s opinion, harsh penalties should be placed on anyone caught begging in the streets. – SG