Begging is commonly seen in many cities around the world. While some engage in begging voluntarily as a means of income, others may be forced into it against their will. This raises questions around whether forced begging can be considered a form of modern slavery.
What is forced begging?
Forced begging refers to the practice of coercing individuals into begging through threats, force, or deception to exploit them for financial gain. Those exploited for forced begging are often the most vulnerable members of society.
There are two main types of forced begging:
- Adults with disabilities or vulnerabilities forced to beg by others
- Children trafficked and forced to beg by gangs or syndicates
In the first case, vulnerable adults such as the elderly, disabled or homeless may be targeted by perpetrators. They are coerced into begging through threats, intimidation, or the withholding of basic necessities like food and shelter. Their dependency and lack of other options make them easy targets.
The second case involves the trafficking of children by organized gangs who force them into begging. This often involves transporting children away from their communities and deliberately maiming or disfiguring them to increase earnings from sympathy. The children are kept under close supervision and their earnings taken by the gangs.
Scale of forced begging
Forced begging affects millions around the world. Groups identified as vulnerable to forced begging include:
- Asylum seekers
- Stateless persons
- Internally displaced persons
- Migrant workers
- Homeless persons
- Elderly persons
- Persons with disabilities
Exact statistics are hard to ascertain due to the hidden nature of this crime. However, research suggests forced begging operations generate massive profits for criminal gangs. One study estimated the annual revenue from forced begging in Paris alone to be around €30 million.
Methods of force and coercion
Various methods are utilized to force and coerce victims into begging. These include:
- Debt bondage – Victims are ‘purchased’ from relatives, owed fictitious debts or fines
- Isolation – Victims have IDs confiscated and are moved far from home where language and culture are unfamiliar
- Violence and threats of violence – To both the victim and family members
- Forced drug addiction – Victims are forcibly addicted to narcotics to increase dependency
- Controlling earnings – Most or all income is confiscated
- Restriction of movement – Victims are supervised at all times
These methods also make it very difficult for victims to escape forced begging situations. Their movements are restricted, they are unfamiliar with surroundings, have no identity documents or money, and fear violence against themselves or families if they attempt to escape.
Connection to trafficking
There are strong links between forced begging and human trafficking. Begging rings recruit, transport and exploit victims in ways similar to other trafficking operations. Trafficking for forced begging can be within countries or transnational.
The main actions involved in the trafficking process are:
- Deception through false job offers to lure victims
- Transportation both within and between countries
- Harboring victims in squalid conditions
- Exploiting victims for forced begging on streets, transportation hubs, churches
The global nature of begging rings makes them hard to track. If begging operations span multiple cities or countries, coordination between law enforcement is required.
Is forced begging slavery?
There are compelling reasons to classify forced begging as a form of modern slavery. The key considerations are:
Victims are coerced into begging through threats, force, fraud or deception. They do not beg out of choice. Their initial ‘consent’ is rendered meaningless by the risks to themselves or families if they refuse.
Loss of free will
The methods of control exerted over victims entrap them in begging by restricting their freedoms. Victims lose free will in a range of ways:
- Forced drug addiction limits capacity to make free choices
- Isolation from society, culture and language removes ability to seek help
- Confiscation of identity documents prevents victims leaving
- Violence or threats against family members coerce compliance
Appropriation of labor
The begging performed generates income which is entirely appropriated by gangs running the operations. Victims receive little or none of the money they raise.
Devaluation of humanity
Victims often face poor living conditions, deprivation of food and medical care. Their lives are devalued in pursuit of profits by traffickers.
Loss of dignity
The manipulative methods and public nature of forced begging strip victims of dignity. They lose control over their lives in profound ways.
Based on these severe violations of basic rights and freedoms, there is a compelling case that forced begging constitutes slavery and should be prosecuted as trafficking.
International law prohibits forced begging under legal frameworks prohibiting:
- Slavery and slavery-like practices
- Forced labor
- Human trafficking
Key international laws and agreements include:
- 1926 Slavery Convention
- 1930 Forced Labour Convention
- 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery
- 2000 UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons
- 2005 Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings
These define slavery broadly, encompassing debt bondage, serfdom, trafficked persons and other forms of severe exploitation. Forced begging constitutes illicit exploitation under these legal definitions.
However, prosecutions remain limited as many countries lack dedicated laws criminalizing forced begging specifically. Wider actions required include:
- Passing laws to recognize forced begging as a trafficking offense
- Improving cross-border cooperation between law enforcement
- Increasing penalties for forced begging rings
- Raising public awareness of how begging can mask trafficking
Forced begging undoubtedly amounts to a contemporary form of slavery. The methods of exploitation, loss of autonomy and degraded living conditions victims endure reflect several hallmarks of slavery.
Global action is still required to align national laws with international norms that can combat begging syndicates. Further progress will also depend on challenging social attitudes that have normalized forced begging in many contexts. Public education will be vital in creating more informed views on how supposedly ‘voluntary acts’ like begging can stem from very real coercion.