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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Even Beggars Pay Protection Dues

The next time you are tempted to hand a 5 ruble coin to that scruffy, dirt-encrusted child or legless Afghan veteran asking you for charity, you might want to think about where that money is headed.

For like most businesspeople in Russia, beggars have to pay their "dues," sometimes handing over much of their earnings to organized criminals or corrupt police officers who shake them down.

"I give half of the money I earn to my boss," said beggar Kakosha, who added that in return for the tribute, his "boss" never lets other beggars invade his turf. "I think he pays some money to [protection rackets] -- cops, or whoever they are."

According to statistics compiled by M?decins Sans Fronti?res, about 5 million beggars, including 2 million children, make their living on the streets of Russia, soliciting alms with pleas like "For Christ's sake, help me with surgery money" or "Hey people, I'm hungry, please don't pass by."

But because many supplicants do not have formal residence permits, they are easy targets for police or racketeers looking to extort money from them, no matter how paltry the sum.

In Moscow, police continue to roust people from the streets, despite that the city's propiska, or residency permit, system has been officially abolished. An additional problem for beggars is that a federal law passed in 1996 makes begging punishable by fine or detainment.

Sasha, who claims to be one of Moscow's most successful downtown beggars, said he sometimes shares his money with local police officers when threatened with arrest.

"They don't really have a choice; if they don't share, they could end up at the police department, where the attitude toward them would not be very pleasant," said Moscow police officer Sergei, who asked that his last name not be used.

He said beggars who do not bribe police to leave them alone often have protection from a krysha, the Russian word for "roof" that is used to describe organized crime groups that target companies with their protection rackets.

"The way homeless beggars' so-called business structures work does not much differ from a commercial company's structure," Sergei said.

Police officers who try to uphold the law, arresting beggars, are often thwarted by overcrowded jails.

"We do not have enough room to detain all the homeless. Lots of police departments are overcrowded," said Dmitry, another Moscow police officer. "Detaining them would be a certain financial burden for us."

Children are often used by criminals as bait for donations. In one recent instance in Moscow, two children begged for several hours outside an electronics store.

They were then approached by several men to whom they handed over their earnings. The men went into the electronics store and later came out carrying a television and video-cassette recorder.

"I used to work in this structure, dealing with children who are forced to beg," said Sergei, a Moscow cab driver. "I know there are some places where you could buy or 'rent' an invalid kid." The more physically disabled a child is, the higher the price, he said.

Some parents even use their own children in such scams, sometimes forcing them to approach cars on busy streets for donations or just stand nearby while their mother or father begs.

"I heard a woman asking for money in a downtown tunnel. She was crying that her child had a serious blood disease," said a social worker with M?decins Sans Fronti?res.

"However, after I offered to help her child by placing him in a medical center, she called a local policeman who told me that the only way I could help would be to give money."

Alexei Nikiforov, who also works with the homeless at M?decins Sans Fronti?res, said many of Moscow's street and subway beggars make enough money to pay for medical facilities. "They have enough money to go somewhere else," he said.

Nikiforov lamented what he considers the bad image created for legitimate homeless people by beggars who are just out for profit.

"The major hostility of Muscovites on this issue is caused by annoying beggars. They, consequently, form a certain negative reputation for the other innocent homeless people whom I treat," Nikiforov said. "We should not make such generalizations."