Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Alarm over child abduction

Reported cases of child abduction in Egypt, said to be on the increase, peaks during the holy month of Ramadan, writes Gihan Shahine

Al-Ahram Weekly

The graceful gaze and gorgeous smile of three-year-old Retal could bring tears to the beholder when he learns that this innocent angel was kidnapped. Retal’s parents recently circulated Retal’s photograph on Facebook, pleading for help to find their daughter after she was abducted. Fortunately, after four days of searching, Retal was found and reunited with her family.

“Please take care of your children,” Retal’s father said. “Abduction is rife, and it does not take more than a few minutes.”

Retal’s mother was in a clothing shop in Nasr City one morning, looking at a dress, when her daughter disappeared. The mother started searching for her daughter in all the adjacent shops and streets, but to no avail. During the four days of Retal’s disappearance her sleepless parents did “everything possible, did not leave a single spot unsearched, called in the police and circulated her photograph on Facebook,” her father said.

“They were the worst four days of our lives,” he added. “My wife was paralysed with shock.”

Just as the parents were starting to lose hope, a young man noticed a girl in the company of a beggar as he took the underground in the populous Cairo district of Al-Marg. The girl was wearing a gold ring and her eyes were swollen and full of tears. The man suspected that the girl had been abducted, and the beggar ran off when he was asked about the girl. The man then took the girl to the nearest police station.

“The police called me immediately and asked me to go to the station,” Retal’s father said. “I could not believe my eyes when the girl turned out to be Retal. There are still some good people in the world.”

He hopes the authorities will be more cooperative when such cases occur in the future.

“The police do not start searching until a day after the report of an incident, which means a child could be trafficked or hurt before they start looking for him or her,” he said.

“Every day counts in the life of a missing child. My daughter is still in trauma and does not trust anybody anymore, not even her aunts and uncles.”

Activists suggest that Retal was probably saved at the 11th hour before being passed on for adoption. This was the case with three-year-old Abdallah, who was sold for adoption and remained missing for a year and a half.

Um Abdallah, a street vendor in the district of Al-Hussein in Cairo, lost her three-year-old boy while he was playing on his bicycle. She was selling toys in front of Al-Hussein Mosque when a police clampdown on street vendors suddenly caused havoc. She was busy collecting her stuff when she looked around for Abdallah and to her shock saw the bicycle without her son.

She reported the incident to the police and a woman who fitted the description of eyewitnesses was arrested and confessed that she had “sold” Abdallah for LE200, a dress and three kilo of meat to someone she did not know, according to the police report.

The report, published in the Daily News at the time, said the woman was “acquitted two weeks later by the misdemeanour court in Gamaliyya and the case was closed” after the woman changed her story, saying she had been forced to make the confession.

However, fate was merciful to Um Abdallah. A rich man in his seventies had bought Abdallah from a beggar as he was not able to have children of his own. The man’s siblings were suspicious when their brother was unable to produce a birth certificate for the boy.

Activists who followed up the case told Al-Ahram Weekly that the siblings reported their suspicions to the police because they feared that the family wealth could go to an unknown child.

Abdallah was returned to the warm embrace of his mother, and the man who took him is now in prison. Such incidents of abducted children have spurred an outcry on Facebook, where photographs of missing children are circulated daily and volunteers are organised to search in different places.

A Facebook page titled “We are all the family of Mo’men Islam” was set up to search for Mo’men, who was abducted in June 2014 at the age of three. It has now become the main site to alert the public of searches for missing or abducted children in Egypt. Some seven Facebook pages have now been established and have had some success recovering missing children.

Three-year-old Mo’men Islam Qanbar was playing with his friends in front of his grandmother’s house in the village of Kafr Meselha in the Menoufeya governorate when his laughter suddenly stopped. His grandmother was busy preparing food for dinner. When she came out to call Mo’men and could not find him, she fell into a faint.

Eyewitnesses said they had seen Mo’men walking away with a fully veiled beggar woman, but police said they had no record of beggars roaming the village.

Mo’men was on vacation with his mother who had come to Egypt a few days before the delivery date of her second child. The mother then lost her pregnancy due to the shock of her son’s loss. Mo’men’s father, Islam Qanbar, a pharmacist living in Saudi Arabia, hurried back to Egypt and did everything possible to find his son. He launched a media campaign, called upon the authorities, and even promised a LE500,000 reward, but all to no avail.

“We are dying every day,” Mo’men’s father said on a TV show. “We cannot sleep when we think our child is growing up with beggars while his parents are alive and searching for him.” Mo’men remains missing, and he has come to symbolise the gravity of the problem of child abduction in Egypt.

Rania Ghanem, a volunteer, told the Weekly that “the apathetic attitude of the authorities” in searching for missing children has forced people to take their searches public using social media.

“Mo’men has turned into an icon of the problem of child abduction,” she said. “We decided to establish the Facebook page when we found that many families were losing their children in the same way and were not getting any attention from the authorities.”

ON THE RISE? Child abduction is not a recent development in Egypt. However, the numbers of stolen children seem to have been rising since the 25 January Revolution, when the political turmoil in the country led to an absence of security.

Today, although Egypt’s security apparatus is back in force, it is to an extent bogged down in the war on terrorism, and many observers suspect some crimes have increased as a result. There are no accurate figures of cases of child abduction in Egypt. Many cases are not reported to the police or are filed as cases of missing children rather than of abductions. However, the available numbers show that more and more children are being taken.

According to figures from the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), 5,550 reports of child abuse including abduction were filed with the NCCM in 2014, 1,336 of them in Cairo. The NCCM also documented 125 cases of child abduction during the first four months of 2015, including the trafficking of young children.

A more recent report by the Egyptian Foundation for the Advancement of Childhood (EFAC) documented 63 cases of child abduction, all in the age group of one to five years, during the first five months of 2016. In 2015, cases of child abduction monitored by the foundation stood at 124, a slight decrease from 2014 when 127 were recorded. Child abduction most commonly occurs in rural areas (70 per cent of all recorded cases), according to the report, probably because services can be lacking, including security services.

The report said that 80 per cent of the cases were financially motivated, with the abductors asking for ransoms. Other reasons included revenge and all sorts of child trafficking, including involving children in sexual abuse, begging and organ transplants.

Nesma Ali, responsible for the EFAC report, told the Weekly that the “real numbers could be six- or seven-fold larger than the official ones.” She said that the foundation depends on the media monitoring abduction cases and that the EFAC is not allowed “to do field research since that would require permits that are difficult to obtain.”

Said Ali, “The police say they do not have accurate records of such cases, since many incidents of abduction are not reported or followed up on. There are also many cases when the families involved do not receive any media or public attention.”

Numbers aside, the consensus remains that abduction is a serious issue in Egypt that needs to be addressed. “We cannot know the full extent of child abduction unless we have accurate statistics,” insisted Hani Helal, secretary-general of the Egyptian Coalition for Children’s Rights, (ECCR) an NGO. “There is more media focus on the issue now, which makes it look like a growing phenomenon.”

Helal said that although child abduction increased during the security vacuum following the 2011 Revolution, cases are fewer now that the country is once again more stable.

“What is more worrying, though, is that we suspect that unless the issue is properly addressed international traffickers will get involved,” Helal said.

Samar Youssef, executive director of the ECCR, agrees that child abduction has always been present in Egypt, but says that the present “media focus has made it more visible.” For Youssef, a particularly worrying development is that more children are being abducted for sexual abuse.

Ghanem refutes claims that child abduction has not grown in the country. “We recorded 2,000 cases between 2014 and 2016,” she said, adding that there are also other cases that have remained unreported, especially in the countryside where families either do not notify the authorities or do not have access to the Internet. “There are also those who fear reporting such cases,” she said.

She says that monitoring cases of child abduction would reveal that it is a “systematic crime” that gains momentum during Ramadan and the months preceding it. In 2014, for instance, there was a peak of boys aged three to five being abducted in Ramadan, she adds.

“Most kids are abducted for the sake of begging, and Ramadan marks a high season for beggars,” Ghanem explained. “There has not been a single day in Ramadan when we did not receive word of a case of a kidnapped child.”

About 80 per cent of the children who are abducted are aged between three and five, an age when they can more easily have their memories erased, according to Ghanem. Most of the cases occur in governorates in the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt, she said, adding that Menoufeya has been dubbed “the city of the lost” because of the high number of abducted children. Those disappearing in the governorate of Fayoum risk having their organs sold to traffickers, she added.

“We have first-hand information that there are gangs in Fayoum that kidnap children for the purposes of removing their organs and selling them to traffickers,” Ghanem said. “We told the authorities that we have witnesses, for example a driver who has worked with the gangs and who would have been ready to report everything to the police provided they gave him full protection. But no action was taken.”

Said Ghanem, “The gangs are still operating, despite the police checks.” In Cairo, “armed gangs that abduct children are based in the areas of Al-Douika and Al-Bassatin, where the children may be sold for LE2,000 each.” Good-looking children are sold for adoption and less good-looking ones are used for begging, according to Ghanem.

“We have reported this to the police, but to no avail,” she said. “We were told it would lead to uncontrollable violence to try to attack the dens used by the gangs.”

Ghanem said parents sometimes use unusual ways to find their missing children, for example, one grandmother disguised herself as a beggar and slept in the streets until she found her abducted granddaughter.

“What we are facing now are not just crimes motivated by poverty, but organised crimes that are taking place under the noses of the authorities,” Ghanem insisted.

AN ISSUE OF SECURITY: Helal said the Ministry of the Interior should give greater priority to child abduction because even one such case is important enough to justify the state taking swift action.

“There is absolutely no planning at the ministry to try to curb child abduction or even studies of who is involved and whether the cases are part of organised crime or international gangs are involved,” Helal said. “The ministry does not have numbers, and the police do not follow up cases of missing children.”

The incidents of child abduction and the apathetic attitude of the authorities have sparked a Facebook campaign demanding the execution of criminals involved in cases of child abduction. But Helal insists that is the application, and not the law itself, that is at fault.

The law stipulates a minimum of two to five years in prison in cases of child abduction, and this can be extended to life imprisonment or even the death penalty in cases where sexual abuse is involved. Fines of at least LE200,000 can also be imposed.

In Helal’s view, such penalties are sufficient if properly applied and the abductors brought to justice. In order to do so, the Interior Ministry should set up a department to monitor cases and find the criminals.

“There should be a comprehensive plan to counter child abduction that includes installing cameras in the streets and increasing public awareness and so on,” he said.

Legal expert Adel Amer agrees that the ministry does not do enough to curb child abduction, having been distracted by the need to “control protesters and fight terrorists.” However, “the laws are also inadequate,” he said, insisting that the death penalty would be the proper deterrent.

Security officials refute claims that child abduction is growing and insist that the police have been successful in catching gangs involved in the crime and returning missing children. The local media is also full of news of Interior Ministry efforts to catch child kidnappers.

In an interview with the website, Mahmoud Khallaf, head of the southern Cairo investigation bureau, explained that “cases of child abduction can be very complicated” and need much investigation. Witnesses need to be interrogated and squads formed to search for the culprits, he said.

This process takes time, and the parents of missing children may get the impression that the police are not doing enough to help them as a result. “But kidnapping children is a human issue and a serious crime,” Khallaf said.

He add that while incidents of abduction have increased since the revolution — because of the weakened state of security, the prevalence of poverty, the availability of weapons and the fact that criminals have become more blatant — the security services are doing everything possible to curb the trend.

But security alone may not be the only thing to blame. Youssef, like many of those involved in children’s issues, is worried that children are not receiving enough attention on the government’s agenda.

The fact that the government-affiliated committees for public protection are not currently in force is a case in point. These committees should exist in every governorate and have branches in villages and districts, but at present they may not be doing the work that they were set up to do.

Presided over by important persons, they have the power to monitor cases of child abuse, intervene to stop them, compensate families and rehabilitate the child victims. But although the committees are there in theory, “they often do not function, which means that children are at the bottom of the government’s priorities,” Youssef lamented.

The same thing seems to apply to the NCCM’s child rescue hotline, established in 2005 to receive reports of child abuse. The hotline was also tasked with sending a social worker out to investigate cases and intervene to stop them by reporting them to the police and referring children to government facilities for rehabilitation.

Ghanem said the hotline still receives reports of child abuse. “But they refuse to send a social worker to investigate the cases when we report that a beggar has abducted a child for fear of being assaulted,” Ghanem complained. “Our volunteers were also beaten by beggars when they tried to take a child to a police station because they thought he looked like an abducted child.”

Youssef agrees that the NCCM hotline is almost non-functional today. “The hotline was very effective in stopping abuse and rehabilitating children when it started,” Youssef said. “There must now be the political will to make sure it works once again.”

When volunteers suspect a child has been abducted they report the case to the police. The police should then find the child and send him to one of the Social Ministry’s childcare facilities until his parents can arrive to claim him.

“The frustrating part is that even when the police are cooperative, as is the case where I live in Alexandria, some of the childcare centres do not accept the children,” Ghanem said. “Or they simply take them temporarily and then put them back on the streets again.”

“Children should be a high priority of the government and the police because they constitute the future of the nation,” Youssef insisted. “If the police are bogged down in the war on terror they should be warned that children might be turned into future terrorists if they are left in the hands of gangs and traffickers.”

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