I was drinking coffee with a friend at an outdoors Athens cafe when a dishevelled little girl aged no more than five quietly approached us and slid a packet of tissues across the table. Child beggars have been part of the Athens landscape for many years.
“Don’t give her anything,” my friend said sharply and looked away.
I didn’t know what to do. If I didn’t, then she might be beaten by the thieving mafia pushing her to beg, and if I did, I was perpetuating the problem. I gave in, took the tissues and gave her a euro coin. I guessed she was either a gypsy child or from the Balkan countries such as Albania. I also didn’t know where or who to contact for child protection. This is a hard, hard dilemma for travellers, and it’s impossible not to see it up close in many countries. Closely linked to begging is child sex trafficking. Children in eastern Europe, South-East Asia, Afghanistan, the Ukraine, South America, Africa and India are often cited as being among the most vulnerable.
During my last trip to India, I saw two boys, just like these ones (pictured left) asleep in the median strip of a busy road, with their meagre wares used as pillows. That image continues to haunt me.
UNICEF reports the sight of children toiling in the streets is part of the daily landscape in Niger’s capital. They come from all over the country and sometimes from other countries in the region – especially Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana. Some of these children are trafficked, and many end up in the capital’s central bus station. From there, they are hired out for menial tasks such as washing dishes and selling and transporting various wares.
Across the African continent, children are trafficked into prostitution and recruited into armed groups as child soldiers or porters; they provide cheap or even unpaid labour and often work as domestics or beggars. These children typically are between 7 and 14 years of age. In most cases, they have families – but very poor families. Some child beggars do not want to return to their homes as they were forced into this trade by their own parents.
Rather than a hand out, we need to give children a helping hand. Our Travel With An Open Heart project found a shocking statistic: According to UNICEF there are an estimated 150 million children living or working on the streets worldwide. www.childsafe.org has lots of tips on how travellers can better protect them.
Warnings about child beggars:
- There is nothing more fragile than a child. When you give them money, you keep them on the streets and take away their childhood
- Avoid buying goods from children or giving money to begging children
- Begging children are at high risk of sexual abuse and rape
- Find and support services in that area that help these children leave the streets
- Many children drop out of school or are forced to leave school to beg. Avoid giving money directly to children to reduce this risk. Instead, find and support services that help these children stay in school
- Begging children lose their futures and dreams and are faced with a life of dependency.
Other international organizations that help to protect children from lives on the street and sex trafficking include: