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Begging: The ugly face of human trafficking in Kampala

By Vision Reporter

Added 13th March 2015 02:42 PM

It is 11:00am at the Kitgum House Junction in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Dressed in a soiled skirt and faded red sleeveless top, a barefooted Betty grabs her weeping baby by one arm and dashes towards the vehicles that have come to a halt in the heavy traffic jam.

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It is 11:00am at the Kitgum House Junction in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Dressed in a soiled skirt and faded red sleeveless top, a barefooted Betty grabs her weeping baby by one arm and dashes towards the vehicles that have come to a halt in the heavy traffic jam.

By Innocent Anguyo


-Human trafficking


KAMPALA. It is 11:00am at the Kitgum House Junction in Kampala, the capital of Uganda.

Dressed in a soiled skirt and faded red sleeveless top, a barefooted Betty grabs her weeping baby by one arm and dashes towards the vehicles that have come to a halt in the heavy traffic jam.

She approaches a white Toyota Raum driven by a white man, and asks the baby to stretch his hands to the car window.

About ten seconds later, the driver, probably irritated by the ceaseless cry of the baby, rolls down the window and hands out a sh20,000 (about $7) note to him. Bingo! Betty says her thanks and moves on to the next vehicle in the queue. However, this driver raises his window.

Before she can move to another vehicle, traffic comes to life and she has  to speeds back to the pavement, her child in tow. They would return when traffic comes to a stop again. Such is how Betty, a Karamojong woman originally from Moroto, makes a living.

The emergence of Karimojong beggars
Ten years ago, begging on Kampala streets seemed to be a preserve for a few people with disabilities. But this has changed. Over the years, Kampala has recorded a surge in the number of able-bodied Karamojong beggars. The Karimojong are an ethnic group of agro-pastoralists in the north-east of Uganda.

Kampala’s areas of Wandegeya and Parliamentary Avenue where beggars were barely visible not long ago, are today a beehive of begging – thanks to the Karamojong.

Perfecting the art of begging
When ignored, these beggers sometimes follow up the pedestrians. As if to exploit all opportunities, they also close in on vehicles during heavy traffic jam. As if they had all received pre-begging training, the Karamojong street children ask for money in such a beseeching manner that most of the passers-by usually hand over their spare change. Unlike other beggars who use cups and plates, the Karamojong children use their hands to collect the donations and run straight to the woman who brought them to beg.

“Karamojong forced to beg”
All this might have taken the city unawares, but one man, the chairperson of the Karamojong Community in Kampala, Francis Luwari, says he saw it coming. Luwari, who heads more than 10,000 Karamojong in Kampala, says his people are always in dire need of assistance for basics, such as housing, clothing and food - prompting them to hit the streets.

“Some of them came to the city in search of a good life, but most were sent here by their families to find odd jobs to help support their relatives back home,” Luwari says. According to officials in the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, women in Karamoja hire out their children to Kampala-bound colleagues to be used as street beggars at a fee.

“Children are better beggars!”
Luwari says the elderly, mainly women, use their children because the kids attract sympathy from passersby. These women, Luwari reveals, sit in premeditated spots where they can clearly observe the children as they go about their errands to ensure the latter do not pocket any of the collection.

“Beg or die”
As a Karamojong on the streets of Kampala, Luwari notes that, “you either beg to live or never live to beg.”

The Karamojong beggars, sources say, are often brought to Kampala by unscrupulous people (identified by Luwari as ‘owners’) with promises of a better life- only for them to end up being used to beg or drafted into crime rackets.

Those enlisted into gangs, are reportedly forced to rob city residents for their “owners” as payment for transport fare from Karamoja, and food and accommodation in Kampala. Those who choose to beg see their daily collections taken away by their “owners” at the close of business. When the Karamojong beg on the streets, their respective “owners”, are usually stationed not far away - so as to monitor how much is being given by the clueless passersby.

The severity of the situation 
The Ministry of Gender, Labor, and Social Development (MGLSD) in 1993 found that there were 4,000 street children in Uganda. The problem worsened with the influx of Karamojong families; the current estimates put their numbers at a mind-boggling 10,000.

According to the US Embassy in Uganda report on trafficking in persons in Uganda 2012, that year, Uganda police intercepted at least three buses, one containing 38 children, from the Karamoja region bound for Kampala. Authorities believe the suspects intended to use the children for forced begging or domestic servitude.

The report further notes that the most trafficked persons are children and women, although, the males are also trafficked on a small scale. The main reason of trafficking is labour, begging, marriage and commercial sexual exploitation. Mostly, children from poor families are the main victims and the common movement is rural to urban. According to the Police crime report of 2011, 69 children were trafficked within the country last year. A sign of human trafficking.

The fact that these Karamojong beggars are doing it for someone else, without their consent, implies that this is broad-day human trafficking, though it is not the only case in Uganda. Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery where people profit from the control and exploitation of others.

Human trafficking is a form of slavery, whereby traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to control other people for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex or forcing them to provide labor services against their will. Traffickers use violence, threats, deception, debt bondage, and other manipulative tactics to trap victims in horrific situations every day in Uganda. All trafficking victims share one essential experience – the loss of freedom.

Uganda is a haven for trafficking
Across Uganda, many children are being exploited in stone quarries, mining fields and fisheries. Girls are trafficked into child domestic labour as housemaids and baby sitters. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) took children away into soldiering, slavery and forced marriages. 

The protocol of 2000, also known as the Palermo protocol, further explains that trafficking includes recruitment, transportation, transferring, harbouring and receiving of people either by threats, coercion, abduction, fraud, deceit, deception and abuse of power.

Experts explain surge in trafficking
Moses Binoga, the coordinator of the taskforce to prevent trafficking in persons says the most notable cause of human trafficking in Uganda is poverty and unemployment. “Poverty renders victims vulnerable and leads to rural-urban migration. Urban areas such as Kampala are the major transit and destination areas of internal trafficking,” says Binoga.

The community liaison officer attached to Katwe Police station, Sam Nabongho, blames abuse of power and office too. “There are a number of powerful government officials who are shamelessly involved in trafficking persons around the country,” Nabongho complained. Norman Saad Kityamuwesi, a senior immigration officer in the ministry, blames ignorance.

“Most Ugandans are not aware that trafficking of people for jobs is an offence. They don’t know there is a law governing it,” Kityamuwesi noted. The other causes include destabilisation of families, armed conflict, famine and disasters.

Taking the beggars off the streets
The anti-trafficking taskforce with the help of MGLSD has continued to remove Karamojong children in possible trafficking situations from Kampala’s streets and transferred several hundred to two MGLSD-operated shelters in Karamoja that provide food, medical treatment, counseling, and family tracing. 

“Since 2009, the force has invited trainers from the Child and Family Protection Unit (CFPU) of Police to provide anti-trafficking training to over 3,500 police recruits and more comprehensive training to 800 officers in criminal investigation courses,” Binoga reveals.

Way forward
Uganda signed the protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children in 2003 supplementing the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime she ratified later in 2005. The protocol is aimed at making internal human trafficking an offence and supporting international effort in investigating and prosecuting the cases.

In October 2009, Parliament passed the prevention of trafficking in persons Act which targets prohibiting trafficking in persons (TIP), creating offenses, prosecution and punishment of offenders, prevention of trafficking in persons and protection of victims.

In spite of enacting the law on prevention of human trafficking, Platform for Labour Action (PLA), a local charity organisation creating awareness on human trafficking has however criticised the government for not fast-tracking the enforcement of the Act. Lilian Mugerwa, the executive director of PLA says: “Setting up a three-tier governmental structure to address trafficking issues and implement the Prevention of Trafficking In Persons Act of 2009 are some of the big strides government has made, but they can only work if there is an existing regulatory framework.”

Ndikuwa sarah, the head of the CFPU at Katwe police station urges on country-wide sensitisation. “Let the public know how to identify cases of trafficking in their midst and how to deal with them. Any effort against trafficking of persons that does not involve the public is likely to fail,” says Ndikuwa.

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