Last weekend, I popped out to meet a friend for lunch. As I waited for a cab, a smartly dressed though dishevelled man approached. He looked pale and very spaced out. ‘I’m really, really hot – I feel so faint. Can you give me some money so I can get a taxi home?’ I hesitated for a second before giving him some change and telling him to head straight to the air-conditioned mall next to us. I felt completely awkward: had I done the right thing? Was he conning me? Or was he in real trouble and I should have given him more?
Lt Colonel Mohammed Rashed Al Muhairi, director of Dubai Police’s tourist security department, would have told me not to give him a fil. His team is currently spearheading a revitalised anti-begging campaign, aiming to eradicate the practice from Dubai altogether. ‘We reject begging – we will not encourage it,’ is his firm line.
This is not a new campaign. Begging is a year-round issue in the emirate: 246 beggars have already been caught in the first six months of this year. However, there is always a spike in the activity around Ramadan. ‘It’s like Christmas for Christians – locals here are more sympathetic and generous before, during and after the Holy Month,’ Colonel Mohammed explains. ‘People come here on visit visas, typically from Asia and other Arab countries, to beg during this time.’
So how do they operate? ‘Often one man might bring over a group of women and station them all over town. The women then get to keep perhaps 10 or 15 per cent of anything they gather, while the man takes the rest for “expenses” and so on.’ Other typical cases include people wrapping bandages around themselves and pretending to have a wound, or women donning abayas and claiming to have sick children in their home countries. For one lady, this story apparently earned her Dhs1,000 from an Emirati man in one day.
‘About 80 per cent of the begging cases we catch are false. False, totally fake,’ states Colonel Mohammed. The police explain that their main concern is the safety of Dubai’s residents. ‘Begging is a danger to the security of our city’s people. It creates more crimes: if no one gives, people may get desperate and threaten with knives or snatch handbags.’
However, the police state that they want to make sure they are punishing the right people: those ‘exploiting somebody else’s son or daughter to run their own illegal money-making’. Foreigners caught begging will be deported after having their photo and fingerprints taken. This year, security is tightening up further. The municipality, immigration and police are now coordinating their efforts to catch the correct culprits.
But for the 20 per cent of genuine beggars, the question that springs to most people’s minds is this: how do they get so desperate that they turn to begging? ‘Some through unfortunate choices, some through being born into an unfortunate existence,’ says Lola Lopez of charitable organisation Volunteer in Dubai. ‘If someone is considering begging, I suggest they contact their embassy or, if they have a job, speak to their employer.’ But how can we help them? ‘Tell beggars to call us,’ says Ahmed Al Kendy of the Red Crescent UAE. ‘We help more and more desperate people here. Normally it’s because their salary isn’t enough, they have a big family or they have lost their job.’
The good news is that the Red Crescent has launched a Dhs28 million Ramadan campaign to help at least 75,000 people in the UAE and abroad, with strong government backing. ‘If people need help, they should go to our centre in Rashidiya,’ Ahmed says. ‘We are open Sunday to Thursday from 10am until 2pm and 5pm to 8pm every single week.’
‘What is important now is that there is always a way one can help,’ says Lola. ‘It’s important to remember one’s own luck might one day change.’
Contact the Dubai Red Crescent on 800 733 or see www.rcuae.ae, or visit Volunteer in Dubai’s website at www.volunteerindubai.com
We asked if you had ever been approached by beggars in Dubai. We were bombarded with responses
‘I was backing out of a parking spot in Bur Dubai and a guy in a suit approached me and said, “Excuse me, please can you help me out? I’m not feeling very well.” Saying this, he pulled open his suit to reveal some sort of IV bag taped to his abdomen with needles. It was all very fast and I was taken aback. He said he lived in Sharjah and needed money for food. I gave him Dhs20. He then asked for more, saying he needed money to go to Sharjah. I just pulled out of the parking space and drove off.’
‘An elderly man with a very badly burnt and bandaged foot sat begging outside my accommodation compound. I gave him some money and a bottle of water. I would not have helped if the person begging was fit and well.’
‘Behind the Fairmont hotel, a young Indian boy aged about 19 asked me for money. I gave him Dhs5 and he looked at me angrily and stormed off. If you really want to help beggars, give your money to a worthy charity.’
‘The last beggar who approached me was an Arabic lady with her daughter: she knocked on my apartment door in tears and my husband gave her money. I was scared for her – I kept thinking if she knocked on the wrong person’s door, she could get into serious trouble. I still can’t stop thinking about her now, even though it was six weeks ago.’