DUBAI (AFP) — Child beggars have proliferated in Mecca and Medina, some maimed by traffickers to draw the sympathy of Muslim faithful who flock to Islam's holiest cities in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr.
"Organised African gangs deliberately mutilate these child beggars before sending them into Saudi Arabia," Mecca police spokesman Abdul Mohsen al-Mimaan was quoted as saying September 27 in the Saudi pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat.
"These Africans practice the trade of children who have an arm or a leg amputated or whose body is burned with incendiary materials," Mimaan said.
Muslims from all over the world descend in droves on Mecca and Medina during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr festival that follows so that they can perform the umrah, or smaller pilgrimage.
Saudi Arabia and many other Arab countries began celebrating the three-day fast-breaking festival on Friday after announcing the sighting of a new crescent moon, though Egypt will not mark the Eid until Saturday.
The increase in the number of child beggars has alarmed Saudi authorities, who have launched a campaign to combat a racket that proves particularly lucrative during the holy season.
The interior ministry announces almost daily arrests of beggars. Over the past five months, 15,000 of them, including around 2,700 Saudis, have been rounded up.
Officials fear the children could be exposed to sexual exploitation or sickness.
But the scourge is not unique to Saudi Arabia.
According to a study by the Imam Mohammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh published in the Saudi daily Okaz, more than 80,000 "street children" can be found at any one time in the six oil-rich Gulf Arab monarchies -- Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Around 16,000 of those are on the streets of Bahrain, Oman and the UAE.
Begging tends to flourish during Ramadan and the fast-breaking feast, especially outside the mosques of Mecca and Medina where more than two million faithful come to pray.
An official Saudi study recently cited in Okaz said that "more than 24,000 children of 18 nationalities, but particularly Yemenis, are thrown onto the streets of the kingdom, chiefly in Mecca and Medina, during Ramadan."
While the number of beggars grows by an average 55 percent in most Saudi cities during the holy month, the figure for Medina is a whopping 96 percent, according to the study.
Omar Abkar, a nine-year-old Yemeni boy, confided to the paper that his father had forced him into this "job."
"My father turned me over to uncle Mohammad Ismail," Okaz quoted him as saying, adding that Ismail "manages around 100 children whom he trains to become professional beggars."
In order to generate pity, some "trained" beggars show medicines or personal documents as "proof" of a real or feigned sickness while others wave unpaid electricity bills.
Others wear the traditional long robes that are the hallmark of the Gulf region.
In the latest twist, some beggars wear the "ihram" -- two pieces of unstitched white cloth worn by pilgrims -- and exhort faithful to help them cover their umrah expenses.
According to the study compiled by the Imam Mohammad bin Saud Islamic University, 69 percent of child beggars in the capital Riyadh are Saudis aged six to eight.
Economic and social factors, such as "the breakup of the family unit, domestic violence and poverty," are mainly to blame for pushing children to the streets, the study says.
Okaz carried a story of one Saudi who drops his wife and three young daughters outside a mosque before prayers every day in the southwestern city of Assir.
The man, who told the paper that he owned nothing except his old car, collects the four after prayers and pockets the day's revenue -- around 300 riyals (80 dollars, 56 euros).
This is less than the potential daily income of 100 dollars in Mecca and Medina, which is half what an Asian manual labourer makes the whole month in Saudi Arabia.
The head of the office charged with combating begging in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, Saad Ali al-Shahrani, was quoted by Okaz as saying that one beggar was caught with a staggering 72,000 riyals (19,300 dollars) in one-riyal notes -- making up a month's income.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »