Kenya-Tanzania: Trafficking handicapped children and the economy of misery
Used in Nairobi’s lucrative ‘begging industry’, Tanzanian children are transported through major bus routes, such as the Tanzania Namanga route, to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. The journey can take up to nine hours.
Once inside the borders, bribes must be paid to Kenyan immigration officers, and both Tanzania and Kenya revenue authority officers, to allow them pass without the temporary East African passport.
Once in Nairobi, groups of children are stashed in rented or empty homes, and are transported to strategic locations early each morning by handlers posing as relatives.
Wait and see others who are being returned. It is a business just like any other, this kids are money making machines
Able to earn as much as 3000 shillings ($35) daily, handicapped toddlers and teens are left in the scorching sun until the evening, when they assemble to a central place to be picked and returned to their host.
Some cannot move due to the severity of their disability prompting their host to go carrying them around. The host hires watchmen to watch over them to avoid them revealing their identity to curious passersby.
Reuben, aged 15 from Tanzania, has struggled with crippled limbs from an early age. He is one of many children trafficked to Nairobi. Together with other disabled children, Reuben’s job is to earn as much money as possible for his handlers, whom he calls his ‘seniors’.
“I make a lot of money for my host, and I know they are very happy with me,” he said.
“When I came to Kenya they promised me better life. I was told that in Kenya there are programs to help people like me.”
Reuben spoke about the promise of a new wheelchair and financial aid to better his life. “Till today, that has not happened. All I do now is to sit here waiting for somebody to drop me a coin to give to my senior,” he said.
At an early age, Reuben lost his mother, after she abandoned him due to his disability. In Africa, mothers are usually stigmatised when they give birth to disabled children.
As a child with disability, Reuben was left alone at a tender age to fend for himself. He said that life in Tanzania for disabled people was difficult due to discrimination and neglect. In Nairobi, he said, the generosity of Kenyans transformed his disability into an asset.
Reuben’s day begins at 5am. Every day his seniors take him to scouted locations while it is early and dark to avoid raising suspicions. Valuable paper money would be hidden in his jacket while coins would remain in the can.
“My bosses carry and keep all the cash. I get free food and shelter. That is what matters to me,” said Reuben.
The money collected by disabled and handicapped children such as Reuben would be handed over each day to their handlers. While children like Reuben are watched from a distance, toddlers are often ‘rented’ from brokers by women who pose as mothers.
After days of watching street mothers earning an income from disabled children, Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR) trailed one ‘mother’ carrying a disabled child as she emerged from Kariobangi South estate, on the outskirts of Nairobi.
The fake mother boarded the public transport van to Githurai estate, some 30km away.
Upon reaching her destination, she sat near the bus stop where commuters gathered, placing the child on the ground. After a few hours, the scorching sun had an effect on the child, who was given no water/food. Fortunately, one well wisher handed him food instead of money.
Sympathisers dropped money near the child. The mother waited for them to leave before picking it up and stashing it a small cloth beneath her chest.
Asked about the child, the fake mother claimed she was not able to take care of him without begging. “He is my child,” she claimed. But neighbors said otherwise. They confirmed that the child was hired.
Later that day, the “mother” boarded a vehicle back to Kariobangi, returning the child to the guardian.
According to a vegetable vendor nearby, the guardian was housing about ten physically challenged children – each rented out for Sh500 (about $6) to any client in the area.
Those who are not lucky to be rented are picked up by a taxi driver and driven to Nairobi town where they are dropped off at vantage points, in streets like Tom Mboya, Moi Avenue and Luthuli Avenue, at the capital city Nairobi.
“Wait and see others who are being returned. It is a business just like any other, this kids are money making machines,” said the vendor.
Money from misery
Reuben does not talk easily. Referring to his ‘foster’ parents, he said: “They watch the money that I make and are present all the time. I cannot fool them.”
As he spoke, his handler kept a watchful eye at a car park about 10 meters away, curious of the ongoing conversation with Reuben.
Kariobangi estate was to reveal the faces behind these children. Inside a two roomed house, seated on the floor carpet , the trafficked children chatted happily.
Their ‘handler’, Abed Musoma – a Tanzanian national – lives with his Kenyan wife whose role is to cook for the physically challenged children.
Abed, who said he arrived in Kenya two years ago, confirmed that he had brought the children from Tanzania, allegedly with the intention of helping them.
Claiming they were homeless, he stated that the money he earned would be used to build a house for them when he takes back to Tanzania. But Musoma was careful not to mention how much he earned from the children daily.
The children see the experience differently. “They could even kill you, we are told they are well connected with the city council police and some senior people in the Kenyan government,” said Reuben.
Radoslav Malinowski, the director of Awareness against Human Trafficking, an NGO seeking to counter the phenomenon in Kenya argues that trafficking is forced labour. It is “the worst exploitation after organ removal,” he said.
“You can see them begging and the big guys taking all the money by the end of the day. Only two cases of trafficking were prosecuted last year […] and these prosecutions failed to progress. Hundreds of other cases remain pending in the police files,” said Malinowski.
According to Malinowski, unemployment is the major driving force sustaining the begging industry – estimated at 41 percent by the Kenya national bureau of statistics.
“The cartels are well connected internationally,” says Malinowski, “and the police usually limit our work so it becomes very difficult to counter the criminals.
“We get at least 12 cases per week,” he added.
Bribes paid to City Council police are one way to ascertain the release of arrested disabled children. While non-disabled children are sometimes able to flee police crackdowns on hawkers and beggars, handicapped and disabled children are released by virtue of bribes to the city council officers, to avoid prosecution.
“The officers take all the money we have collected, then they release us”, says one disabled child.
Police, however, deny any allegations of collection bribes to avoid being reprimanded.
Back to one
“At least I can get food and shelter, something that was not possible in Tanzania,” said one child. “But this job comes with frustrations because I cannot access the money I beg for physically. My superiors go away with it after guarding me for the whole day,” he said.
It is estimated that there are about 200,000 reported cases of human tracking cases but the figure could be higher since many go unreported and unrecorded.
There is also corruption since the traffickers are internationally and locally connected.
The Kenya police figures only show 150,000 cases but most of them are trans-border, where illegal immigrants pass through Kenya to other countries.
The East African community has since January this year been taking strict measures on trafficking and vetting every immigrant on border points.
“It seems to be working but it is not 100 percent effective,” says a policeman who opted to remain anonymous.
“Even if we remove the beggars from the street, they always return,” he added.
The author, Eudias Kigai, is a member of FAIR – Forum for African Investigative Reporters.