Sweden: A Beggar on Every Corner by Ingrid Carlqvist

  • For the last few years, Sweden has been overwhelmed with Roma beggars from Romania and Bulgaria. Recently, the government estimated that there are now around 4,000 in Sweden (population 9.5 million).
  • “We do not fool anyone. We just benefit from the opportunity.” — Bulgarian beggar in Sweden who said he “owned” five street corners.

  • “If the begging is profitable, they stay miserable…. [Giving money] improves the acute situation. At the same time, it contributes to making the bigger issue permanent — the misery…. It will not help the Roma, but it gives you a chance to feel like a good person. … The basic concept of racism is precisely that we as westerners and Swedes are far superior (smarter) and that the Roma are inferior (dumber). If this… is not racist then I do not know what is. … One could add that the image is inverted among Roma. They consider themselves superior and smart, while the gadjo (non-gypsies) are stupid, naïve and gullible.” — Karl-Olov Arnstberg, Swedish ethnologist
  • “It is our very strong recommendation not to give money to beggars. It turns the panhandling into an occupation… To give [money] encourages a life with no future; moving from country to country does not solve their problems.” — Florin Ivanovici, director of the Life and Light Foundation, Bucharest, Romania.

Nobody knows exactly how many of them there are, but for the last few years Sweden has been overwhelmed with Roma beggars from Romania and Bulgaria. In 2014, the newspaper Sydsvenskan reported that an estimated 600 Roma beggars lived in the country; a few months ago, the government-appointed “National Coordinator for Vulnerable EU Citizens,” Martin Valfridsson, found that there are now around 4,000.

You see beggars sitting outside virtually every store, not just in the big cities, but also in small rural villages. In the far north of Sweden, at gas stations in the middle of nowhere, patrons are greeted by beggars saying “Hello, hello!” while holding out their paper cups.

Not long ago, begging was considered eradicated in Sweden. In 1964, the law of 1847 against begging for money was abolished — the welfare state was considered so all-encompassing that there were no longer any poor people; therefore the law was obsolete. No one would ever have to beg anymore. The people who, for some reason, could not work and support themselves were taken care of via various social welfare programs. Swedes who grew up in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s had never seen a street-beggar in Sweden.

Then, suddenly, everything changed. Today, Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg are among the cities with the most beggars per-capita in Europe. More and more people feel uneasy about the beggars, who sometimes are even aggressive.

Things started to change in 1995, when a reform of the psychiatric care system led to the closing of psychiatric hospitals and the discharge of patients. People who had been institutionalized for many years were suddenly expected to fend for themselves, with a little help from the government on an outpatient basis. The idea was that it was undignified to keep people locked up in hospitals year after year, but in many instances the alternative turned out to be even worse. Many former psychiatric patients could not manage to cope with daily life outside the hospitals, and ended up as drug-users, homeless and begging on the street.

Ten years later, the real surge of beggars came – Roma people from Romania and Bulgaria flooded into Sweden. Romania and Bulgaria had been granted membership in the European Union, and their citizens could now stay in another EU country for three months. According to the rules, if after three months they have not been able to procure work or begun studying, they are supposed to return home. However, as there are no border controls between Sweden and its immediate neighbors, there is no way of knowing who stays longer than three months.

One of the strongest proponents for granting the Eastern European countries membership in the EU was Sweden’s then Prime Minister Göran Persson. When Sweden held the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first time (January-June 2001), Mr. Persson lobbied hard for an expansion of the EU. Sweden had three goals: Enlargement, Employment, Environment. These three E’s guided the Swedish Presidency.

In 2004, Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined the EU. Three years later, so did Bulgaria and Romania.

However, in 2003, it seemed Persson had gotten cold feet, when he realized free movement could also lead to what is referred to as “benefit tourism” — the movement of people from new, poorer, EU member states to existing member states, to benefit from their welfare systems rather than to work. Persson therefore suggested transitional rules, before less affluent countries such as Bulgaria and Romania were allowed to partake of the free movement scheme. In a 2003 interview with Dagens Eko public radio, Persson said: “We want free movement of labor, but not benefit tourism. We must not be naïve there.”

Mr. Persson was heavily criticized for this statement, and more or less labeled a racist. In a debate in the Swedish Parliament in early 2004, Agne Hansson of the Center Party (Centerpartiet) said: “Is it not time … to apologize for the rhetoric on benefit tourism and the portrayal of the peoples of the new member states as freeloaders?”

Lars Ohly, then party leader of the Left Party (Vänsterpartiet), said: “We are not going to talk about benefit tourism. We are not going to talk about people in a way that discriminates against them compared to the citizens of the current EU states. That is actually a way of fanning the flames of xenophobia and racism.”

A little over a decade later, Göran Persson’s prediction has come true. Romanian and Bulgarian beggars are now demanding that their children should be allowed to go to school in Sweden. They also take advantage of Sweden’s free healthcare, and some dentists even offer them free dental care. In 2014, an Administrative Court ruled that beggars from Romania are entitled to welfare payments in Sweden.

Still, it is not just the lack of anti-panhandling laws and the abundance of welfare benefits that have made Sweden so popular among Roma beggars — or “vulnerable EU citizens” as they are called in politically-correct Swedish. The Roma soon realized that Swedes feel uneasy when they see poor people, and therefore are very willing to put money in the beggars’ cups. A typical Swedish attitude is: “Of course no one would ever degrade themselves willingly by begging from other people, everyone wants to work and support themselves. It is unfair that we have it so good, when they suffer so much.”

The problem is that this is simply not true. Begging has for centuries been a completely accepted way of “earning a living” among Roma people, and as the Swedes are so generous, beggars can make much more money in Sweden than working in their home countries.

Swedish ethnologist Karl-Olov Arnstberg has done extensive research into the Roma culture. In a blog post in August 2014, he wrote about how Swedes tend to view the Roma as victims:

“The above ‘filter of understanding’ is widespread in Sweden, particularly within the power and cultural elites. As an ethnologist and scientist who have studied the Roma, I object. If you ask me, this is a highly ethnocentric view of things, based not just on ignorance, but also on hostility towards knowledge. If I were to use the power and cultural elites’ moralizing language — it is also deeply racist. The reason is, that it paints a picture of the Roma as victims. And if there are victims, then there must be perpetrators and the perpetrators are, of course, us.

“Maybe not precisely you and I, and not we Swedes, but we are part of a Western civilization that oppresses and discriminates against Roma. Thus, we are served up an image where we (the winners) are far above the Roma down below (the losers). We are better and they are inferior. The basic concept of racism is precisely that we as westerners and Swedes are far superior (smarter) and that the Roma are inferior (dumber). If this train of thought, involving perpetrators and victims, is not racist then I do not know what is. One could add that the image is inverted among Roma. They consider themselves superior and smart, while the gadjo (non-gypsies) are stupid, naïve and gullible.”

Arnstberg’s analysis is pretty much what the Romanians say, as well. In April 2015, the public television broadcaster Sveriges Television interviewed Florin Ivanovici, director of the relief organization Life and Light Foundation, in the Romanian capital of Bucharest. He said:

“It is our very strong recommendation not to give money to beggars. It turns the panhandling into an occupation; the children at home in Romania are abandoned and often miss school when the parents are away. To give [money] encourages a life with no future; moving from country to country does not solve their problems.”

The year before, Ivanovici had visited Stockholm and interviewed his Roma countrymen:

“We interviewed beggars, and almost all of them told us they would rather stay in Romania if they could. Yet many of them claimed that they made about €1,000 (about $1,100) per person a month [from begging in Sweden]. As the average salary in Romania is $450-570 a month, begging in Sweden is more profitable than making a living in Romania.”

Many claim that the begging is organized, that gangs recruit beggars in Romania, send them to Sweden, assign them a street corner and then take most of their money. But Ivanovici does not believe this is common: “The Roma live very close together; if someone succeeds in getting €1,000 a month in Stockholm by begging, the news travels fast to their home village. And that prompts more people to go.”

Sweden’s biggest problem with the begging Roma is where they settle. The Roma park their trailers and put up tents in parks, wooded areas and vacant lots, where they live in utter misery — at least by Swedish standards.

The largest and most talked-about settlement was located in Malmö. In 2013, a group of Roma simply started squatting on a 99,000-square-foot vacant lot in a former industrial area in the center of the city. This was the beginning of a process that would drag on for almost two years, wherein the City of Malmö tried all kinds of measures in order to close down the so-called Sorgenfri Camp.

The lot is owned by a private citizen, who had plans for residential buildings on the property. When the Roma broke into the lot, parked their cars and trailers and built sheds there, the property owner filed a complaint with the police regarding trespassing. In many countries, that would have been the end of the story — the police would simply have removed the squatters, and that would have been that. Not in Sweden.

No matter how illegal a settlement is, in order for people to be evicted, the Enforcement Authority (Kronofogden) needs to know the identity of every person living on the property. As none of the Roma had, or wanted to show, any identification, nothing could be done. To the dismay of many residents of Malmö, the camp grew into a large settlement where more than 200 people lived. There was no running water or sewage system on the property; mountains of garbage and human excrement grew day by day. Finally, these health hazards sealed the camp’s fate. Malmö’s Environmental Board, in the decision that finally led to the demolition of the camp, wrote in November 2015:

“The Environment Department has already prohibited living on the private lot. The sanitary situation at the location entails serious health hazards for the people living there, and affects the surrounding environment by littering and smoke from open fires, among other things.”

At 4 a.m. on November 3, 2015, police entered the camp and, using excavators and boom trucks, tore it down.

By then, many of the Roma had already left, but those who remained marched towards Malmö City Hall to protest the decision. They sat outside for days, camping in front of the building to show their discontent. The Roma protesters were loudly supported by leftist activists, who demanded that the City of Malmö arrange free housing for them. Sanitizing the camp began the day after it was torn down — by municipal staff wearing protective clothing and surgical masks.

“The sanitary conditions have been very poor. It is hard to believe that people actually lived here,” Jeanette Silow, the head of Malmö’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety, told the daily, Kvällsposten.

Martin Valfridsson, Sweden’s “National Coordinator for Vulnerable EU Citizens,” presented a report on the Sorgenfri Camp saga, on February 1, 2016. Among Valfridsson’s conclusions: Sweden should not assign special locations where the Roma can settle:

“If one makes municipal or private property available, in the end, new problems arise. Society contributes to reinstating the slums we have so diligently worked to root out. If someone chooses to come to Sweden, they must live here in a way that is legal.”

Valfridsson also said he did not want to offer schooling for the children of Roma beggars, and urged Swedes not to put money in their cups: “I do not believe that is what helps individuals get out of poverty in the long run. I really do believe that the money is put to better use if you give it to relief organizations in the home countries.”

It may sound heartless not to give people seemingly living in downright misery any money, but according to ethnologist Karl-Olov Arnstberg:

“When you leave a contribution in the Roma’s paper cups, what you are actually doing is sustaining a situation that we do not find fit for human beings. It bears a strong resemblance to urinating your pants because you are cold. It warms you up a little, but only solves the problem for a moment. Furthermore, if you urinate in your pants often enough, this becomes a ‘normal’ way of fighting the cold. Yes, I know I am crossing the line with this metaphor, but this is pretty much how it works with the Roma. They will change their economic income pattern only if it becomes absolutely necessary. Plainly put: If the begging is profitable, they stay miserable. Giving them some coins solves the smaller issue — it improves the acute situation. At the same time, it contributes to making the bigger issue permanent — the misery. If you want to perpetuate the Roma’s living in misery, you give them nickels and dimes. It will not help the Roma, but it gives you a chance to feel like a good person.”

What Valfridsson, the “National Coordinator,” actually wants to do about the situation is not quite clear. He mentioned assigning the Stockholm county government the responsibility for gathering regional data on the situation across the country, and setting up an advisory board. Sweden and Romania actually signed a cooperation agreement back in June 2015, stipulating that Sweden will help Romania financially, so the Roma can have a better life there, and thus refrain from traveling to Sweden to beg. A similar agreement was struck with Bulgaria on February 5, 2016.

A few years ago, the Swedish media conveyed the message that the Roma are grossly discriminated against in their home countries, and therefore are forced to come to Sweden and beg. Is it really true that Romania and Bulgaria discriminate against their Roma minorities?

The truth is that in Romanian, the Roma have the same right to welfare benefits as all other citizens, but the authorities in this post-communist country hold firmly to the principle that welfare benefits should be a temporary aid, not a lifelong livelihood, and therefore make demands on welfare recipients.

Many also claim that the European Union has made the Roma problem worse. As long as the Iron Curtain divided Europe, neither the Roma nor any other citizens could move to the West. During the communist era, in fact, the Roma made some progress. Their children were forced to go to school by governments, they were provided with modern housing, and required to work. When Eastern Europe rid itself of communism, many countries kept some programs to fight crime and vagrancy among Roma. Families were ordered to send their children to school. Police patrolled Roman areas and clamped down on child marriage, a common occurrence in the Roma culture.

Then came the EU with its mighty representatives, who said: Shame on you; you cannot treat people differently — that is called racism. So Romania had to abandon its programs for the Roma, and since then, child marriage has skyrocketed — from only three married children in 2006 (an all-time low), to over 600 married Roma children in recent years.

The EU also forced Romania to implement a kind of “affirmative action,” which gives Roma precedence for jobs, schools, housing and so on. But despite aggressive marketing, the program has not been effective, presumably because of the Roma’s reluctance to join in gadjo (non-Roma) activities.

Last year, a Bulgarian news team visited Sweden to film a documentary about the beggars. The footage showed that there are people who actually organize the panhandling; one of them talked openly on camera about being prosecuted for blackmailing a beggar who did not earn him enough money. The man also talked about how he “owned” five street corners in central Gothenburg, and said that the best location was outside Systembolaget (the government-owned liquor store) — where he posted his wife.

Last year, a Bulgarian news team visited Sweden to film a documentary about Roma beggars from Bulgaria and Romania.

The man denied that the beggars themselves worked for him — he claimed they were all part of a Bulgarian team, and split the income between them. His role was just to “protect” them from the Romanian beggars, who, he said, would otherwise “beat up and chase the Bulgarians away.” He said that the beggars make about 400-500 kronor ($50-60) a day, and use the money to buy food, beer and cigarettes.

“Is it not fraud,” the reporter asked, “to pretend that you are destitute, all the while using the money for beer and cigarettes?”

“No,” the man said, “we do not fool anyone. We just benefit from this opportunity.”

The charges against him were dropped.

Ingrid Carlqvist is a journalist and author based in Sweden, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow of Gatestone Institute.

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