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Pakistan: the beggars problem
  • Pakistani beggars arrested
    Pakistani beggars arrested
Gangs of professional beggars from Pakistan, have expanded their occupation internationally. This is really an extension of the organised criminal-drugs nexus that operates out of Pakistan. This information came to light a few months back when Pakistan’s Secretary, Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development in a briefing to a Senate Standing Committee, revealed that 90% of beggars arrested in foreign countries are Pakistani nationals. These were mainly those who had arrived in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran on pilgrim visas. He also said that while it is bad enough that pilgrim visas should be misused in this manner, a significant number of pickpockets arrested from such a sacred place as Masjid-al-Haram, in Makkah were also found to be predominantly Pakistanis.

Saudi Arabia has raised its concerns with Pakistan in this regard as majority of people who travel to the Kingdom are involved in either begging or pickpocketing. Saudi Arabia said majority of pickpockets arrested in the vicinity of Makkah’s grand mosque are Pakistani nationals. This underlying cause for this is pervasive poverty in Pakistan, which makes it easy for criminal elements to prey on the vulnerabilities of the poor and destitute. According to the World Bank, as of 2023, nearly 40% of Pakistan’s population has fallen below the poverty line. Proof of this organised crime activity and breach of trust with countries in the Middle East, came just days after the Senate briefing when Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) offloaded eight people from a Saudi-bound flight at Multan airport.

The FIA stated that during the immigration process the group was discovered to be travelling to the holy land for the purpose of begging. The group of offloaded passengers told investigators that a man who had charged them Pakistan Rs. 1,85,000 got their visas processed, and on reaching their destination they were to hand over half of the solicited money to a sub-agent. They were to return to Pakistan after the expiry of their Umrah visas. A couple of days later, again at Multan airport, the FIA stopped a group of 16 people, including women and children, headed to Saudi Arabia in the guise of Umrah pilgrims. The Interior Ministry informed (Dawn, 26 January 2024) the Sub-Committee of the Senate Standing Committee on Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development that the Ministry had offloaded 44,000 individuals in the past two and a half years.

Secretary Overseas Pakistanis Zulfikar Haider disclosed the details and the extent of the problem to the Senate Panel. Haider vented his frustration over the lack of action taken to address this escalating issue saying, “Beggars are leaving Pakistan en masse, often travelling by boatloads, and then exploiting Umrah and ‘visit visas’ to beg from pilgrims abroad.” He expressed his deep concern that prisons in Iraq and Saudi Arabia were now housing a significant number of Pakistani beggars, further tarnishing the image of Pakistanis abroad. During the Senate Briefing, Haider noted, “India has reached the moon, while we stumble every day” and added, “Our people are now ready to work on wages lower than those of workers of Nepal and India.” Regarding the Middle East, he mentioned that approximately three million people were in Saudi Arabia, 1.5m Pakistanis were in the UAE, while 0.2m were in Qatar.

Secretary Haider lamented that Pakistanis are increasingly viewed with suspicion abroad, leading to a rising number of deportations. “Iraq and Saudi Arabia continuously complain that we are sending criminals to their countries, and their jails are overcrowded with Pakistani beggars. This is a serious issue of human trafficking.” Notably, the number of Pakistani prisoners in foreign jails has been steadily increasing. According to the NGO, Justice Project Pakistan there are a total of 23,506 Pakistani nationals who are in jails overseas, 74% of which are in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Information provided to the National Assembly Secretariat by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows that the highest number of those Pakistani prisoners was in Saudi Arabia, where 12,156 were languishing in different jails. This is followed by 5,292 prisoners at the United Arab Emirates (UAE) jails (The Express Tribune, 21 February 2024).  

Media reports indicate that scores of beggars converge at popular spots across Pakistan, creating a nuisance for commuters and shoppers especially in urban areas. Toddlers can also be seen begging and sleeping at traffic signals on main roads even past midnight. In the month of Ramazan, during which charity activities witness a significant increase, the number of beggars also increase as apart from locals, families from different parts of Pakistan arrive in big cities. And just as beggars from various parts of Pakistan reach the big cities like Karachi, Rawalpindi and Lahore, more experienced beggars take their begging bowls to foreign soils. Ironically, Pakistani society’s negligence has led to the situation where ‘local’ beggars are finding opportunities to go ‘global’. 

Beggars have become such a nuisance that many netizens have started a boycott of such professional beggars with a campaign on social media by a Facebook page named “Ek Aam Karachi Wala” under the hashtag #BheekBand, asking people not to give alms to professional beggars. Unfortunately, the problem does not figure anywhere in Pakistan’s policy planners’ priorities. Pakistan has no proper checks in place for those exiting the country and creating opportunities for respectful employment at home is the least of the concerns. Can Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies dismantle the network of Pakistani begger’s abroad? It seems highly unlikely.