A few years ago when I first came to Bangkok, one thing that struck me was the amount of people begging in public areas.  There are beggars at virtually all the stops along the skytrain, which is the main public transport around the city.  And not just all stops, literally every exit of all the stops.

One of the things I began to realize was that many of the people begging were majorly handicapped, some with no arms and legs, or some with feet with bones sticking out of their toes – really bad infected wounds.  It’s horrible.  What I realized was that these people weren’t just begging, some must have physically put them there, because they couldn’t move themselves.

This got me thinking, what is behind all of this? Where does the money go?

Our natural empathy toward these people leads us to want to donate or help these people in some way.  The easiest, and most common, is to throw some money into their cup.  While our intentions are good, the implications of donating actually doesn’t help them, it hurts them, and funds the operation that put them there in the first place.

When I came across the opinion below a couple years ago in the Bangkok Post, it really resonated with me, and it was titled “The Sin of Giving”.  It just pushes the point that good intentions can have negative consequences, and to be weary of what you’re doing. How many people actually question how these leg-less people got there, or where the money actually goes? I suspect few.

Handing over money to child beggars is not an act of kindness, says the Mirror Foundation

Out there on the streets, kidnappers are looking for children and are hiding out in white vans with no registration plates. When they see their victim, they will hop out of the van, snatch the child and flee the scene. That unfortunate child will then have his arms and legs cut off and be forced to beg on the street. You must have seen some of them — they are people’s stolen children!

According to Witanapat Rutanavaleepong, head of the Stop Child Begging Project by the Mirror Foundation, although it is good to warn children about kidnappers, such a distorted and exaggerated story can confuse them. The story also distorts the public’s view on the issues surrounding child beggars.

“In my experience working here at the Mirror Foundation, there has been no case of kidnapping in vans. It is nothing but a myth,” Witanapat said.

The amputation part of the story is even more ridiculous as it is a process that requires complicated medical procedures and skills. Witanapat explained that having spoken to many doctors, it is almost certain that cutting off a child’s arms and legs would mean a high risk of them bleeding to death.

“And that just wouldn’t make sense,” explains Witanapat. “If the kidnapper’s purpose was to use the children as a tool to earn money, why would they risk killing them? Some stories even claim that children have their internal organs taken out to be sold and then left to die. This also has no truth in it, because organ transplants are not that simple.”

So, despite the issue of child begging often assumed to be related to cases of missing or kidnapped children, thanks to the aforementioned widely circulated urban myth, they are, in fact, usually two very different matters.

“Most of the children begging on the street today are victims of human trafficking, either bought or lured into the industry from rural Cambodia and Myanmar,” Witanapat said. “The situation has worsened over the years and we can see many child beggars in major cities throughout the country.”

Begging does not have to be as straightforward as a child sitting on the road,
rattling a tin — child begging comes in many shapes and forms. For example, children in student uniforms carrying donation boxes are sometimes Cambodian children trafficked into Thailand to work as beggars and are not actual students.

Through the Stop Child Begging Project, the Mirror Foundation is urging people to cease giving money in order to put a stop to this hideous industry, as the more money the children make, the more children that are inevitably brought into the circle.

“Child beggars are not taught necessary skills — they don’t go to school, they don’t get to mingle with people and they have no job skills. They are raised to believe that they can make money by just sitting there. When they grow up, they either end up in the sex industry or work as the observers, making sure the next generation of child beggars is doing their work. By helping them, you are actually depriving them of a better future.”

Telling that to a society that believes in giving, however, can be quite tricky. The issue poses a moral dilemma for many. Is it a sin to ignore a child in need, or is it more sinful to support child begging? There is no easy answer. Yaowapa*, who works in the Asok area, said she gives money to child beggars regularly because she feels sorry for them.

“How can I not give them money? I know those poor children will be beaten up if they don’t meet their target,” she said. “I know it’s an industry, but still, the burden is on the children. It’s not like anyone else is helping them — policemen walk by and don’t even pay attention. I care more about helping the child in front of me,” she reasoned.

She might have a point — are the police really doing enough to put an end to child begging? Every day on the skywalk that bridges Siam and Chidlom BTS stations, children can be seen begging. Some have been working there for several months. The skywalk, dotted with child and adult beggars, is ironically right in front of the Royal Thai Police Headquarters.

“It cannot be generalised that the police do not want to help — some do and some don’t. We have worked with some very helpful policemen who assisted us in following the children to their homes and arrested the adults who controlled the children. There were also some who dismissed the problem and said there was no point tackling the child beggars, as most of them would just come back or go beg elsewhere,” said Witanapat.

Despite the increased awareness about the ugly truth about child begging, the industry is undoubtedly thriving, with child beggars in busy areas such as Asok, Siam and Silom reportedly making up to 3,000 baht a day. Many poor parents in Cambodia are allegedly willing to sell their children to work in Bangkok for just a few thousand baht in the hope that they may live a better life.

“The money does not go to these children — it is used to buy more children. If you think you are making merit by helping that child in front of you, just think how many more children will be sitting on the street begging later. Once the child is in the begging industry, there is no way out,” he warned.

Witanapat tells Life that, although there are some missing/kidnapped children who do end up as beggars, the numbers and frequency of such incidences are nothing like it seems in the well-known urban myth.

“The danger of telling your children the van story is that they might not realise that most kidnappers don’t come over and snatch them away. In most cases, the children voluntarily walk away with them because the kidnappers know how to convince them. It is better to teach your children not to trust strangers than to scare them with such a far-fetched story,” Witanapat said. He also added that most kidnapped children are not made to beg, but more likely to be sexually assaulted.

Another popular myth is that you have to wait 24 hours to report a missing person. If your child is missing, you can report it to the police right away. In the Foundation’s experience, 70% of missing children are found.

Social media plays an important role in tracking down missing children, as many of them are found when the news is shared on Facebook. There are some who post pictures of missing children, however, even after they have been found, to spur the number of likes on their page.

“Before you share the picture of a missing child, it is advised to do some background checks to see whether the child is still missing,” said Witanapat. “Sometimes, we see pictures of children who have been found and contact the page, but they refuse to take the pictures down because they grab a lot of attention and generate likes, which is great commercial tools for their page.”

* Name has been changed.

What to do when you see a child beggar

The Mirror Foundation suggests you think about the following before you put money in the tin:

Be sceptical before giving money. It does not make sense for a child wearing a student uniform to be begging for donations in the middle of a school day.

If the uniform does not have the child’s name and school logo, it is possible that the child is not a real student.

Talk to the child. If the child does not speak Thai, it is possible he/she is a victim of human trafficking.

If you notice something strange, such as the child appearing with different adults, or the same adult coming with different children, alert the police or contact The Mirror Foundation.

Children selling flowers at night is another form of child begging. Be cautious of them, too. Supporting them might perpetuate the problem.

If you feel that you really must help the child, give them food or clothes instead of money.