Documentary exposes how disabled children become slaves of traffickers

A beggar.

Photo credit: File

An undercover investigation by the BBC showing how disabled children from Tanzania are trafficked to Kenya to work as beggars has also exposed how criminals are buying donated wheelchairs for use in the trade.

Forced to Beg: Tanzania’s Trafficked Kids, the 46-minute documentary, which is a project of BBC’s Africa Eye went live on Monday, and shows how the magnanimity of Kenyans is exploited by criminals seeking to rake in money from the centuries-old habit that today has morphed into organised crime.

The journalists expose the cruel trade that has led to the high number of the disabled Tanzanian beggars on the streets of Nairobi and other major towns, majority of whom are trafficked from home against their wish and in the pretext of finding them a means of livelihood.

Mothers in Tanzania are tricked into giving up their children to traffickers, unaware that they are giving them up for physical, sexual and mental abuse, which is what those who fail to meet their daily targets of collections are subjected to. 

Mrs Irene Wagema, the director of Zabibu Centre, a child care institution, took in some of the rescued children and revealed that the wheelchairs they use while begging are rented out to them at Sh150 a day by a man who gets them from different benefactors.

The rest of the children were repatriated and reunited with their families in impoverished parts of Mwanza, Tanzania, where a majority had been trafficked from.

“We will not disown them until they are in proper hands,” said Mrs Wagema. 

A single beggar can make up to Sh4,000 a day, all of which is then shared amongst the undercover network involving his traffickers, boda boda riders and minders, all of whom play strategic roles in moving the beggars from where they are hosted in a shack in Kariobangi, to their begging stations. They also watch them during the day to ensure their earnings are protected and they do not reveal their identity to anyone.

After an entire day of begging in the scorching sun, cold or rain, the children, some of whom for lack of wheelchairs, spend the entire day crawling on the streets in search of places with heavy human traffic to increase their earnings, do not get medical attention when they fall sick.

The documentary ends in an anti-climax as Fara, one of the victims who has lived half his life begging in the streets of Nairobi while suffering abuse from his traffickers, learns that his mother is not receptive to his wish to return home.

“I don’t think we have a good place for you here, let me look for a place that is not too remote then you can come home. If you come here you will suffer,” his mother tells him in a video call.

Fara was trafficked from Tanzania by a man identified as Zengo in 2014, and has been living with him in a house in Kariobangi where he returns every evening and leaves each morning as he heads to his begging station.

Zengo lied to Fara’s mother that he would be sending her a cut from the more than Sh700,000 that sums up Fara’s earnings annually but that has never happened. Fara does not receive a penny from his painstakingly long days of begging, making him a slave.

As he waits to reunite with his family, Fara is now learning a skill at Zabibu Centre, where he was taken in after the rescue.

Zengo and his accomplice Kamwa Mwasengo have since been charged with human trafficking, the case is pending in court.

Mrs Wagema notes that Fara would not have spent close to 10 years begging had Kenyans and the government not turned a blind eye to the plight of disabled beggars in the streets who are widely known to have been trafficked to Kenya.

“The society has refused to embrace disabled children. We refuse to see the child behind them and only see the beggar, so we hand them coins to shrug them off,” she said.

The documentary also exposes security gaps on the Kenya-Tanzania border where the children are trafficked through.

Ms Esther Njuguna, a child protection expert and senior coordinator of Survivor Services at the International Justice Mission, Kenya, noted that the crime has persisted because the Victim Protection Act that was enacted in 2014 to provide special protection for vulnerable victims of crime is yet to be operationalised.

Director of Public Prosecutions Noordin Haji has since pledged to widen the directorate’s focus to human trafficking in the East African region.

“Our focus, I must admit, has been on the Northern corridor along the Kenyan border with Ethiopia, South Sudan and less on Uganda and Tanzania. I will see to it that this scope also gets covered adequately, he said after watching the documentary.