While in South Sudan, Tupa encounters one of the most shameless aspects of modern day slavery: the trafficking of disabled children. Exploiting children with disabilities in this manner is part of East Africa’s lucrative begging industry. Contrary to appearances, begging is big business and often controlled by well-organized syndicates.
While difficult to comprehend, the trafficking of disabled children in East Africa is a relatively common and highly lucrative corner of the wider trafficking world. The children are generally transported to Nairobi, but other cities and regional centers siphon off some of that flow along the way. The network is as highly organized as that involving the trafficking of girls and young women, and it involves collection points, sorting centers, and delivery routes not unlike Federal Express in their scope and efficiency. Tupa’s experience of being diverted from one network to another reflects to some extent how they overlap and are able to coordinate with one another.
But why do trafficking syndicates even bother with disabled children? In short, they are banking on sympathy: a noticeably disabled child begging on the busy streets of Nairobi will bring in much more money than a non-disabled child. The latter are often referred to as watoto wazimain KiSwahili, which translates as “whole children,” a term that implies both physical and emotional wholeness, traits that are often viewed synonymously throughout the region. While trafficking of “whole children” is also common, when disabled children are trafficked it is much more likely to be linked to the begging industry.
Disabled children are transported along major bus routes like the Juba-Nairobi or Tanzania-Namanga-Nairobi lines. Immigration officials and other authorities receive regular pay-offs to allow them through without a passport or identification of any kind. Once in Nairobi, large groups of children are stashed together in cramped houses located in one of the informal settlements that proliferate on the outskirts of the city. Each morning, they are transported to strategic locations in the city center that are controlled by “handlers,” who often pose as a relative or employee for a church or non-profit organization. Handlers come equipped with elaborate stories, false identification, and extensive connections with city council members, police, and even senior officials in the Kenyan government.
Depending on the location, each child can earn anywhere between U.S. $30-50 dollars each day. Typically, it takes 12-15 hours to collect that kind of money, especially if one takes full advantage of the peak earning hours, which occur during the morning and evening commutes. Throughout the day, the child usually remains in the same spot with little respite from Nairobi’s scorching sun, not to mention the dust, exhaust fumes, and general filth of its busiest streets. In most cases, the handler hires someone – often an older street child – to watch over several disabled children from a distance, ensuring that their earnings are safe and nobody disrupts or interferes with their activities.
Few if any children are spared from the long hours and brutal work conditions. The youngest can even be “rented” from handlers to women who pose as their mothers and get a percentage of the daily haul. The phony mothers earn twice as much as they would begging on their own, which many do anyway.
Children are kept in line through a combination of threats and promises of a better life. But for most children, their lives in Nairobi are similar to those they left behind, only now any money they earn goes to their handlers, as does any scrap of freedom they may have once had. It is an ideal business model: the overhead required to maintain a begging operation is miniscule, especially when compared to the daily profits, and the risks are lessened by the fact that the children – because they are bussed in from other areas – do not speak the local language, do not know anybody, and are less likely to run away given the nature of their disabilities. In fact, it is next to impossible for a disabled child to simply run away and vanish into Nairobi’s street scene since doing so requires joining a gang to survive, and they have little chance of doing that because membership requires certain skills – fighting, the ability to run away from dangerous situations, and cultural affiliations to name a few – that they do not have.