ABU DHABI // Police and crime specialists welcomed the approval of a draft federal law that seeks to stamp out begging, though they said that while tougher regulations were necessary improving public awareness should be a priority.
On Monday, the Cabinet approved a draft federal law to introduce tougher penalties for begging, WAM, the state news agency, reported. No indication was given as to specific measures in the draft law, or when it might be passed officially and into practice. At present, a conviction for begging can bring two months in jail or a Dh500 (US$136) fine. Most offenders are foreign. Lt Sammi Zayed of Abu Dhabi Police, who investigates begging, called it a social phenomenon that was on the rise, if only slightly, as more people were turning up in the country with visit visas they appeared to have obtained specifically to come and beg. He had noticed an increase in the number of women asking for handouts, for example.
Lt Zayed said the community policing department tried to reduce the number of beggars through awareness and advice, especially among those who seemed to be genuinely needy, but the tactic did not always work. "They are programmed," he said. They come with a visit visa for a specific period and want to get the highest amount of money possible. "Nothing can stop them except legal deterrence. It increases during religious occasions, when people want to do more good deeds and beggars want to get more money.
"Eighty per cent of them are not poor. The police arrested one and found thousands of dirhams in the place where he lived, in addition to the money he was carrying." The public encouraged beggars by giving them money, said Lt Zayed. "It is a social phenomenon that reflects badly on the image of the country. "Some people do it simply because it is an easy source of income - they can just extend their hands and say a couple of words."
There were several government and non-government bodies, such as the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Red Crescent Society, devoted to caring for genuinely poor people, he added. Dr Ahmad Alomosh, the chairman of the sociology department at the University of Sharjah and a specialist in crime and family, said raising public awareness should be a priority. "I don't think police agencies alone can fight the phenomenon," he said. "People have to be aware of its dangers and report any beggar they see.
"Civil societies - such as the school, media, social organisations - have a major role to play. They should instil a spirit of initiative on the part of people to come forward and report beggars. "A lot of people are afraid of reporting beggars to the police. Police should establish bridges of trust between themselves and the public. "Almost all studies show that beggars are not poor people and they resort to begging as a profession.
"Because it is their profession, they are not reluctant to do anything to get the money. They use children, the handicapped or even harm themselves to draw sympathy." Most beggars arrested by police are found to either have visit visas or are in the country illegally because their visas have expired or they have lost their jobs. Police did not provide recent statistics on begging, nor an estimate of the extent of the problem. In the case of foreigners who have breached immigration laws, the court can order a beggar to be deported before or after jail time is served and a fine paid.
If the immigration laws are not breached, the convicted beggar is referred to public prosecutors and must sign a statement saying he or she will not repeat the offence. Police consider any selling of "trivial" goods that cannot be a source of income as begging, as is faking injury or using any form of deception to "gain the public empathy". An investigation by the Abu Dhabi Police Centre of Research and Security Studies in 2004 found that beggars were mostly foreigners who preyed on the "goodwill" of Emiratis, and tended to exploit women and children.
For those two reasons, according to the research, begging was considered by legislators as a crime. Many people remain unsure how to respond when asked for money. Hamid al Hashimi, a 28-year-old Iraqi businessman, had an encounter this week that left him confused. "It's the first time I had seen a beggar such as this," he said. "He dressed like an Emirati, had two kids in his car and spoke like someone from the GCC countries - it wasn't Emirati dialect though.
"He asked me if I was Egyptian. I told him I am Iraqi and he said, 'We are all brothers.' "He claimed he was travelling back to Saudi Arabia and that he had run out of petrol. "He asked for money and said he would pray for me when he gets to his country. "I told him, 'I don't have cash', and he just left. "I had no idea how to behave. I kept asking myself after he left, did he actually need the money? Why did he have two kids in the front seat with him? What if he really needed the money? It's difficult to judge."