BASRA, Iraq - By rights the southern Iraqi city of Basra should be one of Iraq’s wealthiest – it is the site of a major port and some of Iraq’s biggest oil fields are located in the surrounding province. But somehow this wealth has not had any effect on the lives of many ordinary people who live here – the poverty level in Iraq sits at around 22 percent but some recent estimates suggest that it’s higher in Basra. They say that just over a third of the population in Basra live in poverty.
Possibly this is why begging appears to have become an industry here and why local beggars have formed gangs, become associated with criminals and also developed a wide variety of techniques for begging.
The beggars of Basra have developed systems. Begging is like a job here with the beggars choosing where to ask for donations depending on which day it is. So, for instance, on Mondays they might work on the bridges, on Tuesdays in the market places and, on Thursdays and Fridays, at the mosques.
“Fridays and other religious occasions are the best, blessed days,” Hussein Jaber, a 40-year-old beggar, explained to NIQASH. “We ask people for money and tell them that we will ask the clerics to pray for them and their loved ones and their sick or dead relatives. But it’s not easy to find a spot near a religious site,” Jaber admitted. “Almost all of the spots for begging are occupied by veiled women. In fact there are fierce fights between these women to get a place closest to the entrance of a mosque. If one finds such a place, one does not give it up easily because it is very precious in terms of returns you can make here.”
Begging is a growing phenomenon in Basra, admits Hussein al-Mai, head of the council in the Ashar district of Basra. “And it’s been spreading because it is seen by many as the easiest way to get money,” he told NIQASH. “The beggars do all kinds of things to get money – but then nobody knows what they do with it.”
Some of the women who beg have been known to drug their children with sleeping pills or anti-allergy pills and then leave them sleeping, almost naked, even in cold weather, so they look as though they are dying.
Various other begging techniques are commonly used in Basra. Often the beggars will congregate around traffic intersections and offer to clean drivers’ windows for money – even when the drivers don’t want their windscreens cleaned. Often it is children doing this job and they will usually make a beeline for the more expensive cars.
There are also beggars who go to parks or to Basra’s seafront promenade and approach lovers or courting couples – they will ask for money and then either threaten to blackmail the couple, if they don’t seem to be married; or they will tell one half of the couple that the other person doesn’t love them because otherwise they would donate some money.
Then there are the young men who roam the streets of Basra looking sad. They will ask passers-by for cash because allegedly, they have lost all their money or because they are refugees from terrorism in other parts of Iraq. They may even produce pictures of families or relatives they say they lost in the terrorist acts.
Begging is not a new thing in Iraq, says Sami Tuman, who heads a human rights organization in Basra.
“But there are now whole groups that have been able to make begging a profession. And there are others who have become expert at supervising the beggars’ activities. The phenomenon of organized begging became much more widespread after 2003, when there was a lack of law enforcement. It’s become a kind of business that has nothing to do with poverty or destitution.”
A senior Basra police officer, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed this. “There are criminal gangs that have emerged over the last couple of years and they use beggars – especially female beggars – to make money,” he told NIQSSH. “They send them to residential areas and get them to knock on doors. Often begging is just a cover because the women can then report back to the heads of the gangs about what the houses look like, especially the houses of wealthy people.” The police officer added that his forces had arrested many of the women beggars.
This is not necessarily true, says another beggar, Hamid Fadhil. “I’m a disabled person but I have a family of six to support – begging is the only option I have,” Fadhil says. “I have nothing to do with any criminal gangs.”