Cross-border human traffickers are responsible for the increasing number of beggars in major towns across Kenya.
The criminal network is taking advantage of the country’s decision to relax immigration bottlenecks for Africans to bring in the beggars, most of who are disabled. It allegedly uses some of the beggars to solicit for donor funds and abandon them once they get the money.
They present financing proposals to donors and pocket the cash once received, turning their victims into slaves. Once the schemers get their money and abandon the victims, another cartel takes over by facilitating their movement in the towns. It also pockets most of their begging proceeds.
Some government agencies say the relaxed immigration policy was turning Kenya into a top destination for beggars from other African countries, fuelled by the people traffickers.
A majority of the victims are from Tanzania although there are also Ugandans, Burundians, Congolese, South Sudanese and Eritreans.
The spoke to some of them who narrated how they were duped into coming to Kenya.
Ms Peninah Kikoti, a Tanzanian who operates in Murangá town, said she was brought in February 2017 via Mount Elgon by a group calling itself Mtwara Welfare for the Disabled.
“Mtwara is my home village in Tanzania where the major form of disability is polio. I learnt of this group from a neighbour. I was told that I would be taken to Kenya where the government pays the disabled a monthly stipend. According to the plan, I was to be put up in a home for disabled people in Murang’a town. The home turned out to be a lodging where I have to pay rent from begging on the streets,” she says.
She lives with 15 other women, one of them a mother of a three-month old baby.
Once in Kenya the cartel allocates them handlers who help them move around. It is these handlers who also take their collections back to their bosses.
Ms Kikoti says: “We met a group of five males who help in pushing us around as we go to beg. These men have also transformed us into their wives.”
A Murang’a tycoon regularly sends his aides to the lodging to keep tabs on them.
“I have realised that this tycoon has taken our names and pictures and gets money from the government. He assists us with temporary permits to legalise our stay in the town. I would like to go back,” she laments.
Murang’a County Police Commander Naomi Ichami said the cartel is powerful and has resisted all crackdowns against the beggars.
“We have tried our best to kick them out of town but immediately we round them up and present them to immigration department for either repatriation or to be moved into refugee camps, they return to the town,” she says.
“We are aware of the East Africa Community integration plan and Kenya’s presidential declaration that we ease movement and trade across our borders. The challenge is; these disabled people cannot be isolated in the policy. It becomes very hard to enact our own policies. It is a hard scenario,” she says.
Ms Maria Mapunda, who is based in Eldoret, is another Tanzanian brought into Kenya on promises of hitting a jackpot. She says she was full of hope for better livelihood when she left Tanzania for the streets of Eldoret town.
“We were told majority of people in Eldoret are wealthy and generous unlike in our country,” said Ms Mapunda.
She was among a group that was rounded up by the police last week and arraigned in an Eldoret court for being in the country illegally. They pleaded guilty and have been ordered to be deported back to Tanzania. Those who spoke to the said they were brought to Eldoret after paying undisclosed amounts of money to the traffickers.
“I was brought to Kenya by a man who told me that I will get more money than what I received in my country as a beggar,” Ms Mapunda said.
According to police, their handlers are Kenyans who place them at strategic places in the town every morning to beg. Individuals behind the racket receive a lion’s share of the alms every evening.
Eldoret East OCPD Richard Omanga said: ‘’We noticed a sudden increase in the number of beggars in our streets, prompting us to launch a major crackdown. Our officers are pursuing the ring leader said to be behind the trafficking of the beggars from Tanzania and will be made to face the law,” the police boss said.
But some government officials say the criminals have devised ways of going around the law. They also questioned the decision to relax border controls.
Mr Joseph Kaguthi, the chairman of Nyumba Kumi initiative, said Kenya appears to have surrendered to the criminal network in the name of EAC cooperation as well as opening up of borders in the continent.
Mr Kaguthi said 90 per cent of the beggars are from Tanzania whose dominant form of disability is polio.
“Other nationalities drawn into this racket are from Sudan, Eritrea, Uganda and Burundi. We also have some local disabled adults and children in f the racket,” he said.
The network operates mostly in Nairobi, Mt Kenya, Central Rift, Western and Coast counties.
Interior Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho said much as Kenya is committed to opening up borders for free movement of people and goods, no criminal elements will be given space.
“When we talk of free movement of goods, services and people, we are not vague as to include criminal movements. We have the national security aspect to cater for as well as safeguarding the common good of Kenyans,” he said.
All security teams on the ground, he said, had been directed to keep vigil and dismantle all illegal networks, be they local or international.
Nairobi is at the centre of the criminal network. When county askaris rounded up street beggars recently, it was found that a majority of them were foreigners.
Ms Janet Ouko, the County Chief Executive for Education and Gender said: ‘’Of 52 beggars that we arrested, all of them disabled by polio, 38 were Tanzanians, six Ugandans, two from DRC Congo, others being Kenyans, South Sudanese and an Eritrean.”
Dr Anne Murigi, a member of the Doctors Without Borders says there are health risks in the way Kenya liberalised its cross border movements. “For Instance, Kenya was supposed to be declared by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as Polio free in 2018, but thanks to reported new cases in Eastleigh, the announcement has been pushed to 2021,” she said. Most of the new polio cases Kenya has reported since 2013 came into the country from Somalia.
But Immigration Principal Secretary Gordon Kihalangwa said there were no grey areas in how to deal with illegal immigrants.
“Our guiding policy for now is the presidential decree that any African travelling to Kenya not being required to apply for a visa but be deemed to be eligible to receive a visa at the port of entry," he said.
Reports by Mwangi Muiruri, Barnabas Bii and Titus Ominde