BEIRUT: Many Lebanese people have remarked that it seems like there are ever-increasing numbers of beggars in the streets of the capital. Refugee street children have spread among main streets, on highways, in alleys, on bus stops and traffic lights; they run to you with empty hands and bubbly eyes, murmuring their need for money.
According to a study published by UNICEF, begging is the most prevalent type of work among street-based children (SBC) standing at 43 percent, followed by street vending 37 percent, and the remaining 20 percent are distributed over other types of work.
The UNICEF reports that more than half of SBC in Lebanon are aged between ten and 14 years old, mostly originating from Syria.
“Some of the children are being obliged to work on the streets because their parents aren’t finding any jobs due to their limited capacities,” a source from the UNICEF told Annahar.
Forty year old Hanan, a Syrian refugee who sits with her four children and niece on a sidewalk in Hamra Street said that “most Lebanese women do not let anyone clean their houses or wash their dishes unless they know them and trust them, which makes it much harder for us to find a job, and pushes us to sit on the streets.”
Lebanon has taken in over one million refugees since the war-struck Syria in 2011. Syrians now constitute almost a third of the country’s population, leaving an approximate of 200,000 children without education, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC).
The IRC also reports that Syrians who fled their country do not have formal refugee camps thus are living in cramped apartments, unfinished buildings, and tents in ad-hoc camps while humanitarian services are unable to keep up with needs as refugees deplete their resources.
Confronted with the ever-present sight of this poverty along the past six years, most Lebanese citizens have reached a sense of compassion fatigue, an indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of suffering people, mainly experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals.
Sociologist Ekbal Nehme explains that “the main reason the Lebanese people have become indifferent is mainly due to lack of trust in the honesty of these beggars and the fear of funding an underlying mafia, thus helping increase crime rates and child abuse.”
Echoing Nehme’s thoughts, director of the Beggars’ project in the Ministry of Social Affairs, Sima Mouaweyeh, told Annahar that “people on the streets are not as innocent as they seem.”
“They receive a monthly payment from the UNHCR, and after several investigations, we discovered that many parents tend to rent their own children,” she added.
According to a report by the UNHCR, Lebanon received $1.2 billion in foreign aid in 2016 to deal with the large influx of Syrian refugees; however, the amount received equals to almost half of the promised funds by foreign powers and organizations, which is a total of $2.48 billion, leaving a 55 percent deficit.
The amount received by the country is being allocated for food security, energy/water, education, basic assistance, health, livelihoods, shelter, social stability, protection, child protection, and Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV).
According to Lisa Abou Khaled, Public Information Officer at UNHCR:
- UNHCR’s monthly cash assistance program provides USD 175 per month to the most vulnerable refugee families to help them meet their basic needs. Due to limited resources, UNHCR had to prioritize monthly cash assistance to 30,000 families in Lebanon or 24 percent of the refugee population in Lebanon.
- UNHCR cash programs in Lebanon are also tailored to help refugees meet specific needs, during specific periods. The protection cash assistance program, for instance, reaches those with particular protection needs with time-bound cash grants, to help them overcome periods of hardship. It helps a refugee who is at risk of being evicted pay rent, or a single mother with a sick child buy the medicine her child needs.
- During the harsh winter months, UNHCR provides refugees with cash assistance to ensure they have additional resources to keep warm and dry. The amount is approximately USD 147 per family per winter month.
- UNHCR’s program for hospital admissions for obstetric and lifesaving care covers 75-90 percent of hospitalizations for refugees. We also cover 75 percent of primary care.
- The World Food Program (WFP) provides USD 27 per person per month for about 70 percent of the Syrian refugee population for food.
Within the reality of the street, these numbers tend to lose meaning.
An 11-year-old Syrian child, who spoke on condition of anonymity, expressed that “women tend to rent their newborn girls to strangers for LL 20,000 so that she can carry her all day too for extra empathy.”
“Many of the children on the streets are being rented from their parents to be directed and exploited by a person known as the ‘Shaweesh’ – Arabic for ‘system officer’ – who watches them from afar, monitoring what people give them to take it by the end of the day,” said Mouaweyeh from the Social Affairs Ministry.
Digging deeper to the legal aspect of this issue, and according to Article 586 of the Lebanese Penal Code, human trafficking is punishable by imprisonment for ten years and a fine if the offender is “one of the victim’s parents.” While article 618, states that forcing minors to beg is punishable by imprisonment for up to two years.
A source from the Internal Security Forces (ISF) told Annahar that “efforts are being put to hold custody of such people, and security departments ask people to report directly to the ISF if they notice any suspicious activity or witness any kind of abuse on the streets.”
“Several substitutes can be given to these children when their innocent eyes strike a sensitive vein in your heart, ones that can satisfy their basic needs, like food or clothing, yet doesn’t keep their childhood hooked to the endless ripple of abuse,” advised Mouaweyeh.
She explained that the ministry of social affairs will soon be launching a new campaign that advises people not to give money to street children, yet to guide them to a hotline they can call to get assistance.
In 2013, a Lebanese television series entitled Shaware’ Al Zel – Arabic for “The Streets of Humiliation” – brought wide attention to the issue of street children as its story revolved around the mafia behind child beggars, with the aiming to provoke the government to give more attention to this issue.
Laura Khabbaz, a Lebanese actor and co-author of Shaware’ Al Zel, told Annahar that “the series managed to shed light on the issue of street children and changed peoples’ perception of it, yet didn’t get as much governmental nor organizational attention as expected.”
“Home of Hope is the only NGO that provides shelter to these children,” Khabbaz added, “Therefore we need governmental assistance to help boost the number and the capacity of these NGOs.”
Home of Hope is a shelter for what the UN calls children at risk, like abandoned orphans, those facing violence at home or any kind of abuse.
“What specializes our NGO is that most of our children are unwanted; unwanted by their families or by the government – as having no legal papers whatsoever – and unwanted usually by other institutions as well,” expressed Noah Jones, director of Home of Hope.
“Home of Hope includes everything from acting as purely as a shelter to a school providing internal education to its children, yet still requires a lot of materialistic needs and support, especially in terms of food, clothing, and blankets,” Jones added, “There are also personnel needs, such as volunteers to take care of the children and others to teach them.”
The maximum capacity of this NGO is 74 children at once, and in order to be enrolled, the Ministry of Social Affairs manages and studies each case to be then sent to Home of Hope based on a judiciary decision.
Another initiative that helps street children in Lebanon is Save the Children Initiative. It uses rights-based approaches in Lebanon to increase access for children, adolescents and youth to quality education, and strengthen child participation and protection at the family, school and community levels.
Program manager of Save the Children, Jacques Lahoud, also agrees with giving street children food and clothing rather than money and also advises people to take the initiative and guide these children to their centers that are distributed across Lebanon.
“Whenever beggars call our hotline -- 01-397509-- someone will guide them to professionals who will manage and study their case; we’ll see what they need exactly, in terms of medical care, food, money, education or any other type of support to see how we can help,” Lahoud added, “in that case, money is going to those who actually need it, not to those abusing child labor and people’s humanity.”
Road safety expert, Kamel Ibrahim told Annahar that the presence of these children on the streets is a direct threat to their lives and to the safety of the people driving.
“Children on the streets head directly to your car when they see the sparkle of a coin, they do not take any consideration to neither their safety nor yours as they know nothing about the topic,” said Ibrahim, “Yet Lebanese authorities still do not consider this issue as a priority, because we got used to reacting to incidents rather than preventing them.”
Mouaweyeh highlighted that “the solution to this issue is forcing this inhumane investment in children to go bankrupt.”
“So when a child looks at you and begs, he’s not actually begging for money but for you to guide him to a way out of this vicious circle of abusive child labor, so be cautious about whom you’re actually giving,” she expressed.
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