SAN ANSELMO, California — The short answer to the question of giving money to child beggars, according to human rights groups, is no. The longer answer is far more complicated.
Realities of Child Beggars
About 60,000 children in India vanish every year, kidnapped and forced into working as beggars for criminal groups reminiscent of the mafia.
UNICEF, Human Rights Watch, and the United States State Department report that children in these situations are not permitted to keep their earnings, are not allowed to go to school and are often tortured and neglected to further give them a physical appearance of helplessness.
Children are sometimes so mistreated as to be starved to the point of appearing gaunt.
Hungry children are more apt to cry and therefore elicit more sympathetic responses from passersby. Some children are even maimed. Criminal groups have been known to scar children’s faces with acid, cut out their eyes, or sever a limb because disabled child beggars make more money, up to 10 times more than the amount on which millions of Indians survive.
And, child beggars keep none of the money that they collect.
An Indian news station in 2006 did an undercover investigation where they filmed doctors agreeing to amputate children’s limbs for $200 paid by a criminal group.
These groups train enslaved children how to act and who to approach in order to maximize hand-outs from tourists. And similar to methods used on adult victims of trafficking, criminal bosses get children addicted to opium, alcohol, solvents and other substances to keep them under control and prevent them from fleeing.
The U.S. State Department reports that a trafficker in Shenzhen, China can make about $40,000 every year by forcing children to beg on the street.
Chief Inspector Carswell, a member of the British police, reports that gangs in the United Kingdom had calculated the earning potential of a child beggar in London at about $166,000 per year from “begging, stealing and being used for benefit fraud.”
Bernie Gravett of the British Metropolitan Police explains the situation in the U.K., saying, “This is modern day slavery. How does a 4-year-old child consent to be exploited? They won’t know that it’s criminal to beg on the streets of the UK. They are kids.”
Enslavement and trafficking are a problem in all regions of the world.
When children become too old for begging on the street, they are often trafficked into prostitution, organ trafficking, and other underground activities. What is sometimes called the “beggar mafia” makes more than $30 million annually, financial clout that allows them to bribe police and other officials to not prosecute their trafficking ring.
Where does this information leave sympathetic tourists?
Many human rights groups state that a person should never give money to a child beggar because doing so perpetuates a system of child slavery and reinforces the idea that child enslavement is a lucrative business.
Jillian Keenan at Slate writes, “It’s a devastating pill to swallow, since enslaved children who return to their captors without money might be beaten, tortured, or worse. But by giving them money, we only encourage the cycle, finance a horrific business model, and put future children in grave danger. When we give directly to children, we hurt more than we help.”
Since tourists cannot know the specific circumstances of a child beggar’s life, it is best, she writes, to not give money, goods, or anything that can be sold.
She cites an example of how even well-thought out donations to beggar children can cause great harm. A Consortium for Street Children report details a time when tourists gave Brazilian child beggars milk powder, and the children proceeded to trade the powder for crack cocaine.
Keenan asserts, “The impulse to share our blessings with people we meet around the world is a wonderful and compassionate thing. But there are better ways to give.” She suggests giving to non-governmental organizations that can create real, structural changes that better the lives of trafficked children.
Finally, Keenan suggests finding an “inventive” way to react to child beggars such as traveling with a hand stamp, a small puppet, or ribbons that allow you to interact with the children without upsetting family dynamics. This supports human trafficking and further entrenching cycles of poverty.
She asserts, “Be generous: Leave those coins in your pocket.”
– Kaylie Cordingley