Scores arrested in clampdown on foreign beggars

More than 60 arrested during the first 21 days of Ramadan as Kuwaiti officials try to prevent foreigners from taking advantage of local generosity.

A cleaning worker receives money from a motorist in Salmiya, Kuwait during the last 10 days of Ramadan, August ,2010.(Photo:Gustavo Ferrari/The National)

KUWAIT CITY // Police arrested 66 beggars during the first 21 days of Ramadan in a bid to clamp down on foreigners visiting Kuwait to take advantage of local generosity during the holy month, a senior official said. "A lot of people feel free to come to Kuwait on a visit visa, they come to the city to collect money," said Major Gen Mostafa al Zaabi, the ministry of interior's assistant undersecretary for operation affairs. "Their mentality is that you are rich and you have to give them money - they are bothering people."

Major Gen al Zaabi said during Ramadan every year the police launch an operation to arrest beggars who try to "embarrass" residents into handing over cash in the country's malls, markets, mosques and streets. Some of the offenders are Kuwaiti, but the majority are Arabs who have entered the country on a tourist visa. "Some even have a business visa, and they are asking for money," he said, adding that panhandlers can make anything from 20 Kuwaiti dinars (Dh255) to 150 dinars a day.

"Kuwaitis are known for giving charity to poor and needy people inside and outside Kuwait. These are our traditions and customs - giving to people in need," Major Gen al Zaabi said. He believes Kuwait's reputation for building schools, mosques and orphanages in poor countries has attracted foreign beggars. "Here in Kuwait, they have an idea that Kuwaitis are nice and weak in front of the poor," he said.

Alien offenders face deportation if they are caught, while Kuwaitis will have to sign a letter promising not to repeat the offence. Major Gen al Zaabi's advice for foreign beggars is to "stay away". "You're going to be arrested and deported and you will hurt the one who sponsored you to come into the country, because he will be put on a blacklist," he said. A recent television report suggested 70,000 foreigners entered the country to beg during Ramadan, sparking concern among members of parliament who asked the government to verify if the figure was true.

The ministry of interior denied the report's assertion. Brig Mohammad al Saber, the ministry's spokesman, said the ministry had issued 14,533 tourist visas between August 11 and 28. He said the erroneous report damaged the reputations of the channel and the nation. Regardless of the exact numbers, the ministry is clamping down on the practice. Capt Abdulla al Faraj, the head of follow-up and co-ordination at the ministry of interior's operations room, said every day 16 police teams, some undercover, span out across the country to catch offenders.

"We get complaints about begging all year, but more during Ramadan," Capt al Faraj said. "If someone calls we go immediately." Capt al Faraj said banks, co-operative societies and mosques have set up tents to provide free meals to people breaking their fast, and the correct channel for the poor to collect money is through licensed charities and non-profit organisations. One of those organisations, Bashayer al Khair, provides support for recovering drug addicts with an Islamic-oriented rehabilitation programme. Mansor al Khashti, the public relations manager, said the charity organised events during Ramadan such as a religious study programme in the mosque and iftars for former addicts.

They also collect donations through bank transfers or at a collection table where benefactors get a receipt from the ministry of social affairs and labour. "Some people, cheaters, take the benefit of Ramadan for themselves, that's why there are rules and regulations," Mr al Khashti said. "We have noticed a lot of non-Kuwaitis - other Arabs, Yemenis, Indians - in front of the mosque and claiming that they are in need."

He said there are fewer beggars this year because citizens are calling the police if they spot someone without the proper credentials. Fatema Ayyad, a board member of the Kuwait Society for Human Rights, said she does not like to see people begging in the street "because I can't say no, I give, but we're not sure if it's going to the right person". Some of the country's officially recognised societies, such as Kuwait Women's Society, study applications from poor people "case by case" and give money to those who need it the most, she said."The people who really need money go to these organisations and they get what they need," Ms Ayyad said. The caption to this story has been corrected to identify correctly the man receiving money.