This report, the first publication by the Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism (NIRIJ), which was conducted by Iraqi journalist Mayada Daoud, earned two awards. It took the first place in the Arab Spring Competition, held on the sidelines of the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) conference, for the best report in the Arab world in 2011. It also won the 2012 UNICEF prize for best written investigation in the Middle East and North Africa.
The report was supported by NIRIJ and supervised by the Network’s general supervisor Mohamed al-Rubai.
by: Mayadah Dawood
For the past year, Ahmed Riad had been sleeping in al-Ummah park in the Bab al-Sharqi quarter of the Iraqi capital, having been forced out of a homeless shelter for exceeding the legal age. Today, Riad makes a living selling drinking water near a park adjacent to al-Tahrir Square.
In his estimation, though, Riad’s situation is still better than that of his colleague Nabil Abbas, who left the shelter a year earlier. At least Riad is not serving a three-year sentence for being part of a “car theft gang.” After only two years spent in the capital’s street, Nabil turned from a vagrant into a “professional” thief. Nobody knows what will become of him when he finishes his sentence and leaves prison.
It appears Arkan Mohammed will face a fate similar to Abbas. He was detained only two months after being forcibly discharged from the homeless shelter. Mohammed failed to convince investigators that he was not intending to conduct a terrorist operation. The police found him hiding in a deserted fridge in a junkyard north of the capital. It was the only sanctuary he found after leaving the homeless shelter.
Ahmed Riad, Nabil Abbas, Akan Mohammed, and others were all victims of “enforced vagrancy” imposed by the Iraqi government. It insisted on applying an old vagrancy law, dating back almost 28 years, which prohibits those over 18 from remaining in the homeless shelter. It did not care if the only alternative accommodation is the violence-ridden streets of Baghdad, described by some reports as one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
An Ancient Law for a Transforming Society
Juvenile Law No.76 of 1983 defines a “vagrant” as any juvenile not older than 15 years old and unaccompanied by a guardian found begging in a public place, practicing an itinerant profession, such as shoe-shining or selling cigarettes, or any other profession that leads to delinquency. The law considers a juvenile to be “vagrant” if they do not have a known place of residence, use a public place as shelter, if they are without a legitimate means of securing a livelihood, or if they left their guardian’s home without a legitimate excuse.
Legal experts, sociologists, researchers, and public entities concerned with vagrancy have directed harsh criticism against the vagrancy law. It has not been amended in the past 28 years, despite the wars, conflicts, and economic and social transformations of the past three decades.
Social researcher Abdul-Razzak Suleiman points to the magnitude of the government’s failures, or what he calls “the lack of a real awareness” of the necessity to reform the “miserable” homeless shelter law, inherited from the old regime. He illustrates the broad and tragic end of the vagrancy file in Iraq at the end of 2011.
Suleiman speaks of the three devastating wars fought by Iraq during the past three decades. The first Gulf War (1980-1988) left behind hundreds of thousands of orphans and destitute children whose parents were killed in the war and did not get support from relatives or state institutions, as “no voice rose above the sound of battle.”
The second war (with Kuwait from 1990-1991 and the subsequent uprisings in several Iraqi cities) took hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers’ lives and more than 300 thousand civilians were executed by the former regime, according to estimates by international organizations. It left behind hundreds of thousands of orphans and vagrants, who also witnessed the great economic collapse in the country between 1991 and 2003. It was caused by the economic embargo imposed by the UN and led to the destruction of Iraq’s economic infrastructure and the spread of poverty, affecting some 90 percent of Iraqis.
Then there was the devastation caused by the third Gulf War, when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, and the subsequent killings, refugees, and sectarian and ethnic displacement, considered to be the largest since the Palestinian Nakba of 1948.
Facing all of this, Suleiman summarizes the vagrancy issue in Iraq as “tragic,” the consequences of which cannot be resolved through a rigid law that is more than three decades old.
The Iraqi Ministry of Planning admits that it does not yet have any statistics revealing the real number of vagrants. Ministry spokesperson Abdul-Zahra al-Hindawi justifies the lack of data with the constant postponement of the Iraqi census, due to political disagreements on the issue, although eight years have passed since the fall of the previous regime.
The last census was conducted in Iraq in 1997. However, it did not indicate the number of vagrants, according to Hindawi, although he concurs that obtaining concrete figures is the best way to begin preparing the necessary plans for their rehabilitation and solving the chronic problem.
Hindawi is critical of the reports quoting “a false and exaggerated figure” from the Ministry of Planning to promote political aims, which have nothing to do with the vagrancy situation. He points to reports that quoted the ministry as saying that the number of homeless in Iraq reached half a million people after the fall of the previous regime, in addition to 5 million orphans and a similar number of widows, since 2003. But these figures have not been authenticated by reliable sources.
Social researcher Salam al-Araji denounces what he calls “the myth of millions” put forward by the report. However, he also condemns the “naiveté” of the numbers proposed by Iraqi government institutions. According to Araji, it is not reasonable that the figure is in the hundreds in a country like Iraq, which witnessed three wars, a long economic blockade, and a years-long sectarian conflict.
Araji believes the “unjustifiable” absence of statistics related to vagrancy makes it impossible to control the problem and take the necessary steps towards a solution. He doubts the Iraqi government is serious about solving vagrancy, if it claim there are only a few hundred vagrants.
Figures published by the only two homeless shelters in Iraq – one for males and one for females in Baghdad – confirm Araji’s comments, as they only include 62 and 47 persons, respectively.
Notwithstanding the huge gap in the available data (109 people according to official figures and 500 thousand according to some reports), Iraq’s homeless population are living in a precarious situation, which the Iraqi government has failed to address or comprehend, according to Araji. “We have to wait for a bit to see if the vagrancy issue becomes another large gateway for violence, gripping Iraq’s future if we do not start acting now,” he warns.
Violence: The First Open Gate
The young boy Safa was rescued by Iraqi soldiers in their military vehicles and taken to Baghdad after his entire family was killed by the US bombing of Fallujah. He is worried about returning to his city and facing the same circumstances that led his father and two of his uncles to join al-Qaeda.
Safa will be discharged from the shelter in a few months, after spending six years there, but he has no idea where he will go. Living in the streets of Baghdad is full of risks and no less dangerous than returning to Fallujah, where his father and uncles fought several armed groups for influence in the city, before they were killed in the air raid. Yet the vagrants law will be imposed on Safa, who will be forced to seek his own way.
A senior official in the Baghdad Operations Command (BOC), in charge of the capital’s security, believes that vagrants pose a serious threat to life in Iraq in general, especially in relation to armed violence. There are a large number of displaced who were found to be involved in planting bombs, placing explosives under targeted cars, or monitoring security details, in particular military positions. Some were found eavesdropping near gatherings of soldiers, selling water or sweets. They relay information to armed groups for small amounts of money.
The senior official says that BOC sent out strict orders to keep young vagrants and sellers away from checkpoints. But he does not think the measure will solve the problem, as long as those “tools” can easily be lured and exploited by armed groups.
The senior official refuses to disclose even approximate figures related to vagrants who joined armed groups or partook in armed activities. However, he maintains that 24 have been killed in bombings that they executed or where their bodies were used without their knowledge amid crowds of civilians.
The senior official describes how al-Qaeda elements would exploit a young homeless person’s need for money, in order to use them in innovative bombing operations. One of them was the young porter Said, who was asked by an anonymous man to carry bags of fruit to his car parked outside the market. Said started looking for the guy, who had disappeared in the crowd, but he was soon torn to pieces, along with several market-goers. The anonymous person had planted C4 explosives in the bags of fruit, which he detonated by remote control.
The same method was used by al-Qaeda in other parts of the country. After repeated phone calls to one of the Diyala regional police commanders, the author set up a meeting with 14 vagrant children who had been involved in armed operations in exchange for a modest payment. However, a few hours before the meeting, the author was informed of their transfer to other detention centers to be presented in front of court.
One of those young boys, according to the police report, had placed explosives in a senior government employee’s car for just 20,000 Iraqi Dinars (US $17). The employee had his leg amputated and suffers from almost complete paralysis.
The investigating officer who interviewed the young vagrant, still remembers the sight of the boy who collapsed after finding out what he had done for only IQD 10,000 ($7), which will keep him in jail for no less than 7 years.
The package the “stranger” asked him to deliver to his friend, a cloth salesman at the edge of the market, was an explosive placed in a cardboard envelope. It exploded, killing the shop owner and injuring several others nearby.
Homeless and Gang Leaders
On the other side of this exploitation by armed groups and their participation in violent activities, vagrants are also in conflict with other segments of society, through the gangs they create, their leadership and exploits.
Baghdad’s police records are full of gangs who murder, extort, and steal, all led by vagrants.
Most of those met by the report’s author at the Baghdad Juvenile Prison, have been part of gangs and armed groups, and come from families of criminals and thieves or those who practiced violence and pushed their sons onto the same path. Some of them deviated by their own will and decided to live a life of vagrancy. However, researcher at the Juvenile Prison Majed Hossam el-Din, says that they are all victims of the spread of poverty and crime since the 1990s.
Some of Baghdad’s most menacing gangs in the final years of the last century until the fall of the former regime in April 2003, according to Hossam el-Din, were run by vagrant boys. They used to kill each other in the corridors of local banks or gold markets which they robbed.
Many of those gangs liquidated one another later. Those who survived that war joined the armed groups and militias, becoming the worst killing machines in the years of sectarian conflict in Iraq between 2006 and 2008. Hossam el-Din believes that each transformation and unstable period witnessed in Iraq in the past few years presented a favorable opportunity for the young vagrants to return to criminal activities.
He recalls how the prices of shears that could cut through big metal locks rose dramatically at the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011. Gangs led by vagrants were seen milling outside gold shops and banks, awaiting developments in the security situation against the backdrop of the demonstrations. Usually, any transformation on the ground in Iraq is an opportunity for the vagrants to seek revenge from society and grab all they can get.
The Cheapest Goods in the Human Organs Market
Investigator at the Interior Ministry Rahim al-Lami counted more than 25 cases of trafficking in human organs. Of the victims, 14 were less than 18 years old. However, these are only the numbers al-Lami himself had to deal with in the past year.
Lami explains that most cases involved the selling of organs harvested from the homeless. Organized gangs would transport them from Baghdad and southern cities to other districts with hospitals specialized in kidney diseases. Lami would not disclose the solutions they developed to put an end to this phenomenon. However, he mentions that the victims justified the issue by saying that a loss of a small body part for a few thousands of dollars is much better than losing body and soul to dangerous criminal activity or starvation.
According to Lami, a kidney transplant costs around 25 million dinars ($22 thousand). When the cost of surgeons, specialists, and hospitalization are deducted, as well as the brokerage fees, what is left would not exceed 5 to 6 million dinars (around $5,000). The “donor” receives the money, spends it, and then returns to to vagrancy, but this time with only one kidney.
Close to the blue gates of the Homeless Women’s Shelter (or prison) in the capital Baghdad, a group of men were whispering amongst each other while they waited to see their relative Najat, who has been here for the past two years.
Najat was the subject of a long debate between the director of the shelter and her relatives, dressed in traditional Arab garb. She ran away from one of her uncles’ homes, but neither Najat nor the shelter’s administration would disclose the reason. The issue, according to one shelter official, “is very sensitive and carries tribal dimensions, more than anything else.”
One of the relatives says a few words to the woman and exits the building with the remaining men. He left the shelter a written pledge to protect her if the management agreed to deliver her to him.
Najat’s story resembles that of many young women in the shelter. But the administration will not disclose their plights. It wants to protect the women who came here seeking help, according to the official, who did not seem reassured by the relative’s oath.
Researcher Hanan Mostafa says that most of the stories of homeless women are similar. They are often runaways from the homes of their relatives, who arrived to the capital or major cities, after being lured there, and who suffer from behavioral problems, poverty, or harsh treatment. In many cases, sex work networks would wait for them to lure them into prostitution or working in nightclubs and then abandoning them if they get arrested, sent to juvenile prison, or the shelter, if they are of a young age.
Mostafa explains that the risk of deviancy at the hands of such networks follows young homeless women when they leave the shelter. The time spent at the shelter does not immunize them from exchanging their bodies for a chance to have a place to stay, protection, and money.
The official at the women’s shelter describes what he called the advanced steps undertaken by the responsible authorities to deter vagrant women from behavioral deviation after leaving the center. First, they permit them to stay for four additional years after turning 18 (until the age of 22). This temporary solution might allow young women to acquire a suitable profession or get married. At least, by 22, they might be more capable of confronting the challenges of life than at 18.
Additionally, the official said there are continually holding courses at the shelter and at several NGOs, aimed at training vagrant women in sewing or computer literacy, to help them obtain a job. This is in addition to literacy courses and general cultural and educational courses taught by experts.
Contrary to the official, social researcher Najla Hassan believes the course given to the women are often “routine” and are thrown in “as a duty.” They contribute only marginally toward some women’s development.
In her years researching the women’s shelter, Hassan “rarely” encountered vagrants who are gifted or willing to change their behavior. The great majority only know begging and deviancy, and spend most of their time concocting intrigues against one another, getting into violent fights, or using profanities.
Before the reporter left the shelter, a violent fight broke out, with fists and stones, between several of the women in the garden, which is equipped with some tables and swings. When the guards attempted to break up the fight, also using violence, one of the researchers whispered to the author, “most of the girls grew up in the streets for years and learned the worst from it. We are afraid that street culture could be picked up by the vagrants who came here for humanitarian reasons.”
Fear of Tomorrow
Social researcher Wali al-Khafaji summarizes the causes of vagrancy in Iraq as stemming from “poverty, rampant unemployment, wars, and broken families.” This, in addition to “the forced displacement witnessed by Iraqis during the sectarian conflicts in recent years.”
In a study of 30 vagrants conducted in the men’s shelter, Khafaji discovered that half of them are completely illiterate, more than 60 percent had lost at least one parent, while 26 percent of the families they hail from have no income resources, and 56 percent of these vagrants live in rented rooms or dilapidated buildings in the slums outside the cities.
It was poverty, described by Khafaji as a primary reason for vagrancy, which drove 16-year-old Amaal to return to the shelter three times in less than two years. She was escaping the life of her poor family, which collects and sells empty soft drink containers.
Amaal says her family, who live in a tin house east of the capital, used to force her every time she left home with them to work collecting the canisters or begging. This led her to run away several times and seek refuge at the shelter, where no one asks her to work to make a living.
“I find all I need here: a bed, food, and a better treatment that at my family’s,” she explains. She did not care about her future after she leaves the shelter. “I will not die” of hunger, she explains. There are always “empty containers to collect.”
Unlike her, Qassem, a vagrant boy, is terrified every time he thinks of life after the shelter. His eyes wander as he listens to the interview with the shelter’s director. He cannot recall what his mother or father look like or anything about his past, except that he was found lost in Basra in the far south (590 km south of Baghdad) and sent by court order to the shelter years ago.
The director does not know what Qassem’s fate will be either. The situation outside the walls of the center will be very difficult, even for a fully grown young man, unlike Qassem, who cannot close his mouth as a result of a disfigured jaw and teeth, and suffers from a twisted arm and a heavy leg, which he drags with difficulty when walking.
Loopholes in the Law
The shelter officials, the experts, and the researchers who took part in this report, in addition to the judges, lawyers, and several civil society activists, believe the vagrancy phenomenon will turn into the most dangerous problem plaguing Iraq’s future stability. After dealing with the violence related to the current political transformation, the vagrants will become a strategic stock for organized criminal and petty gangs.
Everyone agrees on the need to amend the law governing vagrancy and to immediately plug its loopholes. This would be the first step towards addressing the vagrancy issue. Legal expert Abdul-Wahab al-Sayegh identifies several of those loopholes in the vagrancy law in Iraq, which he considers to be “scandalous.”
The foremost flaw is the mere application of an archaic law, created at a time and under circumstances completely different from today. The old law was more concerned with the “dignity” and image of the former regime in Iraq, in front of the outside world during the 1980s war, than the vagrants themselves. Thus, it is no longer useful.
Sayegh adds that the lack of clarity in defining “vagrants” means that the procedures employed to keep them in the shelter are left to the discretion of the judges and their “mood.” The current definition authorizes judicial powers to throw half of Iraq’s children in shelters and accuse them of vagrancy.
“The scandalous confusion,” according to Sayegh, comes from the fact that Iraqi vagrants differ from their counterparts in other countries. Here, only 5 percent do not have any family, while others have families and relatives who could be forced to take care of them properly, instead of transferring the burden to the state and society.
Head of the Women and Children’s Committee at the Iraqi Parliament, Samira al-Moussawi, supports Sayegh’s explanation concerning the ill-defined concept of vagrancy in Iraq. She believes that most of those living in the streets who are wanted for being vagrants are actually part of existing families, but they use them to make a living in several ways.
Moussawi thinks the government needs to implement special programs to improve the economic situation of marginalized segments in Iraq, instead of cramming everyone in the category of vagrant and wasting an opportunity to put an end to the phenomenon.
A judge at the juvenile court replied to Sayegh and Moussawi by saying that judges are well aware of the magnitude of change in Iraqi society after the 1990s embargo and the post-2003 events. Thus, she said they are careful to ensure that their decisions are in the best interest of vagrants. In cases involving orphans or poverty, there is a special treatment and the law is only applied to those under the age of 15, who are working in the streets without a guardian.
Even in that case, the juvenile judge, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that leniency is needed in light of the rate of poverty in Iraq, which exceeds 24 percent. In that case, she explained, they investigate the family of the vagrants arrested in the streets. It could be that they became vagrants to work and support their families and are not de facto homeless and without care.
According to researcher Saeb al-Omari, the greatest and most dangerous gap in the vagrancy law is forcing those who reach majority age to leave the shelter, without equipping them with the fundamentals for life, such as a profession, education, or alternative shelter that could safeguard them from deviance and crime.
However, lawyer Hassan Shaaban says the legal flaws and misapplication of the law together pose “the main reason for the chaos in the vagrancy file.”
After leaving the shelter, vagrants no longer benefit from state support or any supervision. At the same time, they suffer from being perceived as inferior by other segments of society.
The complexities of the situation of vagrants outside the confines of state institutions render them exploitable by armed groups and gangs, or even deviant groups and individuals, the lawyer adds.
Aftercare: A Disabled Law
The juvenile judge believes the existing imbalance in the law can be overcome through some amendments, which take into account the changes she observed in the situation of vagrants. However, she relates the existing problem to the inability of authorities to properly apply the aftercare law. The two articles dealing with those who reach legal age and do not have a shelter are “completely disabled, and it does not appear that anyone will be moving to amend them anytime soon.”
Articles 104 and 105 of the law related to aftercare deal with vagrants who do not have shelter after reaching legal age. Article 104 states that shelters should be provided for those who complete the period of guardianship and do not have anywhere to go immediately, for a maximum period of 3 months. Article 105, on the other hand, said juveniles should be placed back in a state home if it was proven three months later that they lost all access to family care.
The reason this law has been disabled, the judge assumes, is the lack of homes specialized in this area, other than the two shelters in Baghdad. Another reason could be the prevailing security situation in some areas and the sectarian makeup of others. This prevents social researchers from traveling to follow-up on the situation of those they were entrusted to supervise following their discharge from the shelters.
It seems that the fact that only two homes exist for vagrants in Iraq is one of the “oddest” reasons, according to experts and researchers. Compared to the size of the population, which stands at around 33 million, and the wars and calamities witnessed by the country, the neglect to increase the number of shelters would pose “a humanitarian disaster, which the state needs to remedy quickly so as not to be forced to build three new prisons in the future for every shelter it did not establish yet.”
Researcher Suleiman indicates that the price of building a shelter for males and a shelter for women in each of Iraq’s 18 provinces is negligible compared to the government budget, which exceeds $80 billion annually. The 2012 budget is projected at $112 billion.
Providing Job Opportunities: Salvation from Vagrancy
The primary demand of all the vagrants met by the researcher was “a decent job opportunity.”
The vagrants hope the government will find them jobs some day, so they would be able to settle after leaving the shelter. This idea is supported by several researchers and officials met in the course of this investigation. However, one senior government official placed a big question mark on the proposal. He wonders about the situation in Iraq when broken families, or even regular ones, start releasing their children into their streets, awaiting “a government job.”
Suleiman suggest other “more innovative” ways as he calls them, which conform to the type and size of the vagrancy problem in Iraq. This could be through the development of incubators for vagrants, providing temporary grants or small productive projects that could absorb a certain number of vagrants and provide them with the ability to integrate into society as a “productive” rather than “dependent” segment.
According to Suleiman, this could protect vagrants leaving state institutions from going astray. Suleiman believes the government could implements “very wide” programs. All it takes is some care and seriousness in addressing this calamitous issue.
Bassel, who left the shelter around a year ago, says he finally found a safe haven with a simple job and shared accommodation with a janitor in one of the buildings in al-Bayaa region.
He says his situation now is much better than his colleagues who left the shelter and had to sleep in a park or under a bridge. However, what Bassel did not say was revealed by Suleiman, who followed his case since his admission into the shelter a few years ago. The janitor, with whom Bassem lives has a “bad reputation” and could be a “deviant.” Suleiman is worried about Bassel’s fate and the fate of hundreds of vagrants neglected by authorities all those years.
Other than the 109 vagrants recognized by Iraqi authorities, it seems the situation is even worse than Suleiman’s assessment and the perceptions by government institutions or civil, tribal, and religious organizations alike.
Suleiman wonders about the real meaning of “vagrancy” as he watches tin houses spread across the slums on the outskirts of Baghdad. Information from recent reports indicate that 5 million Iraqis live in dilapidated houses in those slums, which lack health and education services. Each morning, scores of children leave to look for empty containers to collect or a place to beg in the streets.
When the author of the report returned to the water seller, Ahmed Riad, some of the vagrants around Tahrir Square informed her that he had disappeared after a wave of arrests by the authorities in the area a few months ago. This took place after an explosion killed four civilians and three policemen.