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).
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 newspaperSydsvenskan 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 2003interview 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.
|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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