Police have vowed to continue a crackdown on begging, arresting a further five people amid reports organised crime syndicates from the mainland are plying their trade on the streets of Hong Kong.
Gangs of up to 30 two-way-permit holders, most of them handicapped, are each reported to be earning up to $500 daily by panhandling.
Most of the gang members are forced to give a 20 per cent cut to a syndicate chief or 'beggar master', who organises transport, accommodation and 90-day visitor permits.
It is claimed one beggar master - who recruits mainlanders with severe deformities from his home province of Anhui - earns as much as $2,500 a night for his efforts.
Senior police warn the situation is expected to worsen. They have seen a significant increase in the numbers of mainlanders found begging in Hong Kong.
Chief Inspector Chu Hon-keung said that in the first two months of this year 90 mainland beggars had been arrested. In the whole of last year, 100 were arrested.
Under a joint crackdown on beggars in black spots such as Central, Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui, police and immigration officials on Friday arrested three men and two women, aged from 50 to 72, for begging.
All were holding two-way permits. They are being held for questioning by the Immigration Department.
'Police will continue to take rigorous enforcement action against begging,' a police spokesman said yesterday.
'If two-way-permit holders are found begging on the street, they will be arrested and handed over to the Immigration Department. They might also face prosecution.'
On average, about 60 per cent of arrested beggars are returned to the mainland without being charged, but they are temporarily barred from returning to Hong Kong.
Chief Inspector Chu said he believed most beggars operated alone.
But he warned that with the rising number of mainland visitors coming to Hong Kong, the problem would worsen.
'In 1997, there were only about 1.5 million mainland visitors, and in 2003 the figure increased to about 8.4 million.
'The numbers will continue increasing with the implementation of the individual travel scheme.'
Meanwhile, the Guangzhou Public Security Bureau is reportedly tightening up on the issue of travel permits to Hong Kong.
Xinhua yesterday reported the bureau was 'narrowing the scope' for granting travel permits to residents wanting to visit Hong Kong and Macau for business and to visit relatives.