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Jakarta Cracks Down on Beggars During Ramadan

  • Solenn Honorine

For Muslims, the holy month of Ramadan, which ends in a few days, is not only a time of fast and prayer, it is also a time to be generous to the poor. In the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, beggars flood in from the countryside in the hope of benefiting from the spirit of giving. But they all risk being arrested for violating the city's ban on begging. Solenn Honorine recently followed one of the raids.

Eight agents from Jakarta's Social Welfare Agency start their anti-beggar raid with a short prayer, eyes down at their feet.

They are off to a productive start. Siti, a 55-year-old woman, is already seated in the dingy truck. She looks scared, clutching the small cloth bag that contains all her possessions.

She says that she was just standing on a street corner where a woman gave her money. Then a Social Welfare agent locked her up in the hot truck without any explanation. She says she was too afraid to ask why she was being detained.

Siti faces a long afternoon. The truck roams the wide avenues in downtown Jakarta, stopping under each of the bridges that lead to the Transjakarta bus-way. They are busy passages favored by beggars who hope to get a few coins from the commuters.

Law forbids begging on street

Two years ago, the Jakarta administration passed a law that forbids begging in the streets, and punishes people who give money to beggars. This month, almost 1,600 beggars have been arrested during the daily raids organized in the city.

One man runs away when he spots the black caps of the Social Welfare agents. But Sari, a 33-year-old woman, can not run as fast with her four-month-old daughter sleeping in her arms. She shakes with fear when the agents ask her to follow them.

Sari huddles over her baby. She says her husband is dead, and she has no other means but begging to support her infant. Between sobs, she swears that she has no boss, that she is here on her own.

Raids target organized crime

The main target of the raids are the organized crime syndicates that round up people from the countryside, bus them to the capital and then collect the money they make from begging. Ramadan is the month when they are the busiest.

Budiharjo, who heads Jakarta's social welfare agency, explains that even though some beggars are indeed poor and need help from the state, during Ramadan up to 80 percent of them come from outside the capital, and most are working for syndicates. He says that this disturbs social peace and should be stopped.

Wharda Haf, who is the president of the Urban Poor Consortium in Jakarta, disagrees with this argument.

"They're trying to hide poverty behind all the skyscrapers. Instead of addressing the problem, which is poverty, they issued this law criminalizing poverty, which to me is off the target. They know it doesn't solve any problem because every year it will be the same. You know, it's like a vicious circle that doesn't have an end, and is just wasting a whole lot of taxpayer money," said Wharda Haf.

The raid has been going on for two hours. Twelve people have been caught and will be sent either to their home villages or to a detention center. Most look lost, afraid; but not Didi, a disabled man who struggles to keep his balance in the road bumps.

Didi chooses to laugh at it all. He says life has changed. Two years ago, he used to be free to go wherever he wanted. But he is not going to worry about being locked up or sent back to his village. That is life, he says.

Rounding up the beggars feels like trying to fill a leaking vase. It has no end. Officials estimate that after the Idul Fitri holidays that mark the end of Ramadan, a quarter of a million newcomers will flock to Jakarta. Most of them will be poor, most of them will not have a job, but most of them will be dreaming of finding a better life in the shade of the skyscrapers.

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