Abuse and Exploitation Cycles: The Beggar Mafia in Pakistan
Homelessness and poverty exist in every country to varying degrees. In some societies, there are social taboos against it, with the public and government stigmatising those most marginalised. It is intrinsically linked with development: as countries become more developed, they are more likely to acknowledge poverty as a failure of the state and address it through welfare programs.
However, like in many other third-world countries, the culture demonises and cast-off beggars in Pakistan. Though, in a country that purports religious norms, should not giving alms to the poor be a catalyst in eliminating the issue? For a Western audience, the easiest comparison is that to the plot of Slumdog Millionaire, where orphans are mutilated to beg for a living to pay gangs. Stories equally as heartless and dangerous exist to varying degrees in the slums of the biggest cities in the Global South.
Currently, there are estimated to be at least 25 million beggars in Pakistan (Jafri, 2021). Usually, in Karachi and Lahore, and other cities in Pakistan, beggars will come up to one’s car in traffic begging for a few alms. They are usually children, people claiming to be disabled, and the elderly, attempting to appeal to someone’s sympathy (Jafri, 2021).
The beggar mafia is organised into a base class of beggars who are assigned by handlers to beg in specific locations at specific times (Danish and Naveed, 2019). In Pakistan, about a third of beggars are handled by beggar ‘masters’ within a larger criminal organisation (Azam, 2011). In Lahore, handlers take advantage of the time of year, appealing to Islamic charity during Ramadan. The handlers will bring in beggars from all over Punjab to come into Lahore to beg, patrolling around crowded intersections, malls, and religious shrines. The handlers will allot beggars certain locations at certain times, giving them a fixed rate for their time begging (Danish and Naveed, 2019).
Other handlers arrange for the beggars’ transport, bringing them into the city from the provinces, and organising pickups and drop-offs from their begging jurisdiction to temporary accommodations during peak begging season. Beggars are further not allowed in each other’s territory (Danish and Naveed, 2019). Furthermore, they have employed other tactics to avoid trouble with the police by having women and children become ‘sellers’. Often, children and women are seen selling toys, water bottles, masks, balloons, or unsolicited windshield cleaning services (Danish and Naveed, 2019).
A story repeatedly told is that of beggars asking for money to eat and feed their children; however, when offered food or a job, they refuse politely, and thus receiving cash is preferred. The Pakistani media, such as Dawn, The Tribune, and The Daily Times, have corroborated this claim, showing evidence from police and journalist undercover operations that the beggars are caught in an extortion cycle that forces them to keep begging (The Tribune, 2021). As a result, news stories and public sentiments urge the public not to give money to the beggars, and thus not solidify their oppressive position.
Yet, the question remains; are the beggars themselves actually making any money? Numerous issues arise when designing studies for beggars. For example, calculating the exact number of beggars in a given district remains difficult, as many interchange their locations frequently or are seasonal migrants to a city. However, a sociological study in Karachi was able to determine figures concerning the characteristics and pay for beggars. The demographics of a random sample of beggars in Karachi was 41 percent female, 39 percent male, and 20 percent reporting as transgender (Riaz and Abrar, 2019). Reported residential circumstances also varied surprisingly, showing that 30.2 percent owned their own (usually informal) property, 54 percent was renting a house, and 16.7 percent lived with relatives. Out of the 140 respondents, 52 percent were illiterate, with the vast majority never finishing middle school. Almost 29 percent of beggars reported that begging was their part-time job, other jobs included being a self-employed informal contract labourer (Riaz and Abrar, 2019). The average wage for the majority of respondents was 500-650 Rs a day or almost 15,000 Rs a month (Riaz and Abrar, 2019). Other estimates put this number anywhere from 100-10,000 Rs per day or 3000-30,000 Rs per month (Azam, 2011). Compare this with the minimum wage in Pakistan, which is hovering around 14,000 Rs per month. As the chart below shows, begging can be a lucrative business earning more money than minimum wage labour jobs, usually exerting less energy and shorter hours for substantially more income (Azam, 2011).
Concerning the happiness of beggars over their choice of lifestyle, 46 percent of respondents in the sociological study were highly satisfied (Riaz and Abrar, 2019, p. 105).
National and subnational government responses have been revisited as of late. The Government of Punjab created the Punjab Child Protection and Welfare Bureau (CPWB) in 2004 (Tribune, 2021). Civil society and the provincial government started an anti-beggar campaign, commencing with a public awareness platform on social media that outlined the dangers of abuse these children face in beggar networks (Tribune, 2021). The distinction between someone choosing to beg as a job for easy money, and someone who is coerced or even forced into it, is hard to ascertain. In worst cases, women are tricked and kidnapped for human trafficking networks as well as children. Additionally, children are mutilated and sold by beggar gangs to make more money as professional beggars, moulding a life for them that makes it nearly impossible to escape. However, the government and the media agree that ignoring beggars is the best method before reporting to the authorities (Tribune, 2021).
But how are people entrenched into begging networks? Riaz and Abrar (2019) have examined how reliant beggars are on networks and how interrelated networks are with other criminal activities. A vast majority of beggars form their identities through social networks with other beggars, having both physical and social protection from their networks. If someone is arrested or falls on hard times, they have other beggars to rely on. Many beggars engage in drug trafficking and distribution, prostitution, and kidnapping, with a third of respondents claiming to have committed some sort of crime (Riaz and Abrar, 2019). Alternatively, two-thirds of beggar respondents claimed to be victims of police torture. Almost a half of respondents stated that their reason to beg was severe poverty, with the second most stated reason being alcoholism. Other reported reasons were old age, disabilities, and illiteracy. Some respondents claimed they chose to enter the profession on their own volition, having no other way to support themselves in a hard situation and finding this a lucrative opportunity (Riaz and Abrar, 2019).
However, many others, especially children, are forced into the begging rings. A study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) showed that 92 percent of interviewed children said they were not permitted to leave and would be punished if they tried. Additionally, 73 percent of the children stated they had been purchased by their masters, with half of the interviewed children being below the age of 10 (Azam, 2011).
The extent of these criminal enterprises bleeds further across borders on the transnational level. Appealing to charity during religious events, handlers in Pakistan send beggars to Madinah in Saudi Arabia, during the Muslim pilgrimage called Umrah. In 2016, over 192 people were arrested in Madinah, among those was a beggar handler who arranged for over 210 people from South Punjab to come on Umrah pilgrimage visas to beg (Dunya News, 2016). The arrangement required the beggars to earn 20,000-25,000 Saudi riyal or 930,000- 1,00,00 Rs (about 6,000 euros), of which half would go to the handler and half to the beggar and his family (Dunya News, 2016). This would amount to almost the yearly earnings of a well-paid domestic worker in a few weeks.
Finally, what do experts recommend? It is important to note that in all the studies cited in this article, there were numerous participants that refused to comment or had apprehension with some questions, with many declining to give names. These studies by the ILO, Riaz and Abrar in 2019, noted that the scale of the issue is most likely worse than ever reported. This is because most number of beggars remain underreported, as well as the amount of people being forced into organised networks. The wider perspective shows how, over the past two decades, Pakistan has become increasingly unequal. The rich are getting immensely richer, while the poorer receive less income. This, in turn, has made jobs competitive and scarce. While minimum wage by law remains low and hours remain long, inflation has skyrocketed, making food more expensive compared to wages. Since the richest class has more disposable wealth for charity, it makes economic sense to become a beggar (Riaz and Abrar, 2019). The formal economy does not have enough job opportunities and jobs that are available offer poor, almost barely liveable, wages. Thus, ensuring minimum wage laws and other labour regulations will disincentivise beggars from begging (Riaz and Abrar, 2019). Another issue that is stressed is police corruption. These wealthy beggar rings usually have members with important appointments in cities, paying local government bureaucrats to look the other way. Similarly, the police also take part in corruption by taking bribes from beggars, in order to allow them to beg with impunity in exchange for half of their begging profits, usually arresting and beating up those that refuse (Azam, 2011). Therefore, instituting state-wide reforms against corruption and for strengthening the rule of law is crucial in ending the mafia rings.
Azam, N. (2011). Beggarization: Beggary as an Organized Crime in Pakistan. Retrieved March 5, 2022, from: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/213396191.pdf
Azhar, M. (2013, June 1). Child victims of Pakistan’s ‘begging mafia’. BBC News. Retreived March 5, 2022, from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22729351
Danish, S., & Naveed, A. (2019, May 4). For God’s sake: The beggar mafia gears up for Ramazan. Retrieved March 5, 2022, from: The Express Tribune. https://tribune.com.pk/story/1965187/gods-sake-beggar-mafia-gears-ramazan
Dunya News. (2016, December 27). Saudi authorities launch crackdown on Pakistani beggars in Madina. Retrieved March 5, 2022, from: Dunya News. https://dunyanews.tv/en/Crime/367315-Saudi-authorities-launch-crackdown-on-Pakistani-be
Jafri, A. (2021, July 2). The Criminals & Victims of Pakistan’s Begging Mafia. DesiBlitz. Retrieved Mach 5, 2022, from: https://www.desiblitz.com/content/the-criminals-victims-of-pakistans-begging-mafia
Riaz, S., & Abrar, M. (2019). Socio-economic status of beggars in urban areas and their involvement in crimes: a case study of Karachi city. Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities. Retrieved March 5, 2022, from: https://jsshuok.com/oj/index.php/jssh/article/view/34.
The Tribune. (2021, February 19). ‘Don’t give cash to beggars’. The Express Tribune. Retrieved March 5, 2022, from: https://tribune.com.pk/story/2284922/dont-give-cash-to-beggars