Syria Crisis

Child Beggars Multiply On The Streets Of Damascus

Children as young as four are the main breadwinners for some families in the Syrian capital.

A Syrian child comes back into al-Moadamiya, a district on the outskirts of Damascus that has been besieged by the government troops for months, in Syria, March 2, 2014.
A Syrian child comes back into al-Moadamiya, a district on the outskirts of Damascus that has been besieged by the government troops for months, in Syria, March 2, 2014.
Alia Ahmad and Karen Leigh

DAMASCUS At first, 10-year-old Rania was too ashamed to tell her story. She spends her days begging for change on the streets of Damascus. “I never imagined myself as a beggar,” she says. “I’m so ashamed when I ask for money.”

Rania and her younger brother were forced onto the streets after their father died during clashes in Hajjar al-Aswad, a lower-income area of the city. After his death, she, her mother and four siblings moved into her uncle's modest apartment in Tadamun.

The family had a roof over its head but no income. Her mother, with children to raise, is unable to find work. The uncle is unable to feed an additional five people. They occasionally receive aid from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, but the rising cost of basic food staples mitigates anything that comes in. For Rania's desperate mother, turning her children out onto the streets seemed like the only option. And in her family's eyes, the choice to “work” as beggars is paying off.

“Occasionally, I get lucky and I get 800 Syrian pounds ($6) a day,” Rania says. “Sometimes, I get no more than $5, but usually, I don’t make more than 200 pounds ($1.50)."

Their “only option”

Rania and her brother are hardly alone on the streets. They're seeing more children join them, as clashes intensify in other parts of Syria and people flee to the relative safety of downtown Damascus.

Last year, the World Food Programme interviewed beneficiaries of its aid programs in seven regions, including Damascus city and rural Damascus. The group said that the number of families with at least one member begging on the streets had risen from 5% to 9% in a single month.

The organization characterized this strategy as the “only option” for these families, saying that those unable to cover rent “are living in uncompleted buildings, abandoned stores, old bus stations, factories or warehouses.” Since then, the number of child beggars on the streets of the capital has continued to rise. “Child labor is becoming more and more widespread in Syria, not just inside Syria but in neighboring countries,” says Juliette Touma, regional communications head for UNICEF.

“Being a beggar is a form of child labor,” she continues. “It reflects how bad the economic situation has become, that families are pushing their children to work. We’re seeing that more and more. These children who are begging on the streets don't go to school, so it's of huge concern for us.” (UNICEF says more than one million Syrian children currently have no access to education.)

A wider problem

The phenomenon is not limited to Damascus. In Beirut, the city’s landmark Hamra Street is dotted with Syrian mothers holding young children. And in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, Syrian children chase tourists, clinging to their legs, begging for spare lira.

A child in Damascus. Photo: Hendrik Daquin.

Often, 7- or 8-year-olds are the sole breadwinners in their families. On one street corner in Istanbul, Mazen, 8, begs alongside his disabled father, who has lost his leg.

“I made it through first grade, but I dropped out of school to help my father beg,” Mazen says. “People don’t give me a lot of money, but I don’t know how much we make, because my father takes all our earnings. He buys me a sandwich every day, and sometimes, he lets me play at the park.” With the exception of his oldest brother, who washes car windows in the Fahhameh area, Mazen’s other siblings don’t work.

Two are too young to beg, and his father doesn’t allow his two sisters to work on the streets after a man harassed one of them, who is 12. Mazen would like to join his brother at work, rather than beg, but he’s still too short to reach the car windows.

The young beggars are facing backlash from residents in areas where they work. Often, their parents will drive them to wealthier neighborhoods and leave them unattended for the day, returning at night to drive them home.

“I hate leaving the house now,” says Munira, 55, a resident of middle-class al-Baramkeh. “Beggars sprint towards you if they see you give someone money. I used to feel sorry for these poor kids, but now I’m more angry at their parents for leaving them exposed to all sorts of danger.

On the al-Raees Bridge in downtown Damascus, 4-year-old Alaa runs circles around her mother, who holds her 2-year-old twins. Mother and daughter both beg.

“May God keep you. Please help us,” Alaa beseeches passing drivers. “My dad died and we’re hungry.” The family, from the Damascus suburbs, is homeless, sleeping on the street, in parks or in deserted buildings. They fled the violence in their neighborhood after Alaa’s father was killed in clashes two years ago.

The presence of Alaa and her family — and other homeless child beggars scattered throughout the city — is one more signal that the war, kept largely at bay, is slowly encroaching on central Damascus.

“We occasionally used to see beggars here and there before the crisis started in Syria, but today we see them everywhere,” says Ahmad, 45, a lawyer living in downtown’s Ain al-Kirsh neighborhood. “The relevant authorities must stop it either by giving aid to those who need it, or by catching those who have taken up begging as a profession.”

Alia Ahmad reported from Damascus, and Karen Leigh from Tbilisi, Georgia.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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