Beggars in Stockholm—everywhere!
Just a few years ago, one never saw beggars in Stockholm. Today, one never sees Swedish beggars, but beggars from Romania seem to be on every corner, at the door of every shop, and at every subway station entrance. It’s an orchestrated invasion; just like the organized Gypsy begging that has been investigated and documented in the U.K. However, in Stockholm, I haven’t (yet?) seen child beggars. Not even babes in arms. I suspect the kingpins are smart enough to realize that Sweden wouldn’t stand for that.
The Swedish government periodically debates the possibility of banning begging, but then, what would happen to the few homeless and drug-addicted Swedes who beg, and the few alcoholics out on the street? Where would they get cash?
Well then, let’s ban begging by foreigners! Good idea, but unlikely to happen any time soon, I think. Everything in Sweden happens by committee, and happens slooooowly.
When border control within the European Union went soft, it didn’t take syndicate leaders long to take advantage of the new freedom of movement. Transnational criminal activities increased, particularly human trafficking.
For now, EU citizens are allowed to come to Sweden and stay without permission for up to three months. The Gypsy bosses know the rules. They transport the poor Romanian villagers, house them, feed them, and ferry them to their assigned begging spots. They come along and empty the cash-cups periodically.
Like the employees of a global theme park, all the Romanian beggars in Stockholm seem to be clones, all carbon copies of a model with a signature style. They all sit, they’re all wrapped in a blanket, they all hold a paper cup, and they all show photos of children. They all have a number of plastic bags near them, stuffed with things. They all block the flow of traffic.
Sweden is perfect…
Sweden is an excellent venue for this racket. Its citizens are wealthy, compassionate, and to some extent naive. The government is hamstrung and afraid to act. Tourists are rarely the budget type. I see people contributing to the cups (to the bosses’ riches); I’ve never seen meanness or complaint toward the beggars, not even hey-you’re-blocking-the-way.
The issue, the poor-Romanian-beggar, abused-victim-or-system-abuser conundrum, fraught with racial implications, is a bush to be beat around. In Sweden, there’s a ubiquitous fear of “what others think.” Everyone’s afraid to appear incorrect.
We spoke to a couple just after we saw them hand over a hundred crowns (about US$15) with a kind word and pat on the beggar’s arm. They give often, they said, whenever they can. They know these people are poor and need the money to feed their children. The couple buys into the scam hook, line, and sinker. Oh, I believe the beggars are poor and, since they don’t work, need help to support their families. But even the Romanian ambassador to Sweden thinks begging should be outlawed (and acknowledges that the beggars are her countrymen).
The beggars’ bosses* keep track of time. When three months are up, the gang is packed up and moved on for another stint elsewhere. Meanwhile, those at the top of the organized hierarachy build palatial houses back in their dumpy Romanian villages, and poor Romanian parents who “rented out” their children to begging and pickpocketing rings likewise see relative wealth.
Bob and I strolled through Kungsträdgården, a central park area in Stockholm, while a street performers’ festival was in full swing. Magician Charlie Caper, surrounded by a good crowd, was mid-routine when one of these Gypsy beggars actually waddled on stage and joined him.
Atypical for her type and oddly gregarious, she seemed to thrive on the magician’s reflected attention. The brazen beggar gestured, she pointed, she ta-da’ed. And when the crowd applauded for the magician, she soaked it up all-smiles and headed into the audience with her cup and photo, as if she were collecting for her talented son. The audacity!
Is it good to give?
Let’s say for a moment that the gypsy beggars in Stockholm get to keep all the cash they collect. I know—but just for arguments’ sake. Then subtract what they must pay for transport from Romania and in three months, to some unknown point (by crowded bus?). And subtract what they pay for food, lodging, and local transportation (which is not cheap in Sweden). They must be gathering a pretty penny, to make their long days on the cold pavement (Sweden, winter…) worthwhile. Citizens and tourists fill the beggars’ cups and the Gypsies (often seen talking on their mobile phones) call their friends and relatives back home and urge them to hop on the next bus to Stockholm, the deal’s great.
Or let’s say it’s not like that at all. The beggars are basically slave labor, trafficked humans, forced to sit on the pavement all day, forced to follow company protocol behaving just so. Strict overseers collect the beggars’ takings periodically and they are given a small wage. Most of the money donated by good samaritans goes into the pockets of the ringleader who—it’s well-established by now—builds palatial mansions (relatively speaking) in Romanian villages otherwise full of wood shacks.* The whole enterprise is a social engineering stunt—one huge scam exploiting public empathy and generous social services.
Either way, depositing funds into the cup-accounts of bundled beggars on the street is not a smart way to help. It rewards the begging enterprise, feeds the criminal organization, and ensures the continuation of the practice. Donors are kindhearted patsies.
Of course Stockholm isn’t the only city under siege. In fact, all of Sweden, even small towns in the frigid north, has been invaded by organized Romanian beggars. Denmark made headlines when Trine Bramsen, justice police spokeswoman for its governing Social Democrat party, said “We don’t want to make Denmark a hotel with a reputation across Europe for free food and board.” She wants them to “choose another country, for example Sweden, where they know they have better possibilities.” Looks like that’s working.
Some parts of the Austria, for example Tyrol and Salzburg, tried to ban begging altogether. But the Constitutional Court overturned outright bans, ruling that begging is a human right.
Dublin has been cracking down on organized begging for years now. In Spain, almost 100 people have been arrested for running human trafficking rings in last three years. “Most of the detainees are Romanian nationals, as are their victims, who are brought to Spain by the rings. In nearly all of the cases the victims were promised well-paid jobs in Spain, but once here they were made to beg on the streets in exchange for a sandwich and a bed inside a shelter.”
The European Union is desperate for a solution but the problem is huge—far bigger than organized begging, even though these rings fall within the realm of human trafficking. “The problem of human trafficking in the European Union” is good read, freshly presented by the European Parliamentary Research Service.
A tool to combat trafficking, is knowledge of its causes and vulnerabilities of victims. This Romanian study of trafficking in persons for forced begging provides such a picture. It highlights the vulnerabilities of potential victims, the characteristics of traffickers and outlines recommendations on combating both these aspects. This study will assist in facilitating ongoing campaigns and cooperation to fight against this heinous crime, to fight for the protection, assistance to, and dignity of the victims and most importantly, to prevent trafficking.
Well-meant donations to beggars enrich the criminal syndicate leaders and further enslave the individuals forced into begging. Giving to beggars is misplaced kindness. The gift does not remain in the hand that receives it.
*Edited 7/29/14 to add support and sources:
“The leaders of a child-trafficking operation that put hundreds of beggars on the streets of Britain were targeted in a series of raids today in a remote Romanian town where opulent mansions have sprung up since the country joined the European Union. … at least 17 people were arrested after the raids on 33 homes in Tandarei [Romania] by a small army of organised crime investigators, assisted by 26 Metropolitan Police officers and two observers from Interpol. … Firearms, jewellery, luxury cars and large sums of money were found at the homes of suspects, according to local media, which said that 320 Romanian officers were involved in the operation. Tandarei, with its population of 12,000 people, 150km east of Bucharest, has undergone a seemingly miraculous economic boom in the past few years.” Police in Romania arrest leaders of child-trafficking operation in UK, The Times, April 8, 2010
If you don’t have a subscription to The Times and do not want to pay £1, the text is also here. Underline above is mine.
Also see the BBC documentary “Britain’s Child Beggars.”
Edit: See follow-up article after our fact-finding trip to Romania.
Edit: Finally, 10/4/14, Sweden admits out loud that the beggars are organized and pay big bucks to bosses. Beggars are Forced to Pay, in Dagens Nyheter, Swedens biggest daily paper. Here’s a Google-translation of the page.
Edit: It is mid-December, mostly dark and freezing out, and I see just as many beggars as in the summer. Perhaps more are in the subways and inside the entries of grocery stores than out in the streets, but they’re in full force. Well-bundled, at least.
Edit: See Stockholm beggars incite political daring about the controversial anti-begging ad prominently placed in a Stockholm subway station.
Edit: Over six days walking all over London in August 2015, I saw exactly two beggars. Police tell me they are removed from the streets immediately and given food and shelter.