Angry voices echo across the car park next to a shopping centre somewhere in Sweden.
“Get out of here! There’s nothing for you here!”
Talk about taking liberties. The woman has just been on an errand in the shop – leaving the blanket and laundry sack she usually sits on outside the entrance – and when she re-emerges another beggar is sitting there, a few metres from her spot.
“I’ve been here for three, four years. You can’t just come here and take over. Good God!”
A security guard turns up to calm things down. But the stranger in his blue fleece isn’t prepared to fight for the space.
“I didn’t know you were here. I’m not after a fight,” he says.
This everyday encounter between two EU citizens in a car park marks the start of our journey. The stranger is reporter Dan Bacan from Romanian newspaper Libertatea, who has come here to work with us on investigating begging from the inside.
In 1741 begging was banned throughout the country of Sweden.
Sweden without beggars is an incidental period in our history. For a few decades after the Second World War, when the welfare state was being established and poverty was more or less a thing of the past, beggars were a rare sight in Sweden.
For many centuries prior to this, people sat on streets and in market squares with their hands outstretched – and through various legal means, the authorities tried to stop the most impoverished from asking for spare change.
In the 17th century, Roma were singled out as beggars, thieves and spies, threatened with hanging if they didn’t leave the country. In 1741 begging was banned throughout the country of Sweden, particularly if it involved “inbound drifters” from abroad: “Jews, tightrope walkers, actors, jesters, vagrants and gypsies”. The punishment was deportation. In 1815 beggars and sellers of matches and flowers were urged not to bother the public. If they did, they were sentenced to forced labour at the House of Correction.
The woman outside the shop sits back down. Her anger at thinking a stranger would take her place is starting to fade. A customer coming out of the shop waves at her in recognition and stuffs a note into her cup. The stranger stays next to her.
“I’m pregnant and I get nothing. Go to the department store. There’s no one there,” she says to him.
The stranger thanks her for the tip and walks in the direction she’s pointing.
Now, the number of EU citizens begging in Sweden is estimated at around 4,700.
In the 1960s, the welfare state began to emerge in Sweden – no one needed to beg any more and in 1963, the Vagrancy Act was repealed.
When the psychiatric hospitals were closed 30 years later, beggars became a regular sight on the streets once again, usually homeless and drug addicts. After Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007 and the financial crisis hit, impoverished Roma also started to make their way to Sweden.
Now, the number of EU citizens begging in Sweden is estimated at around 4,700 and once again a ban is being called for. At their party conference in Karlstad on 15–18 October this year, the centre-right Moderate Party resolved to enable a ban on begging at a local level. For several years the right-wing Sweden Democrats have recommended a begging ban and campaigned against what they term “organised begging”.
Martin Valfridsson is a government coordinator for work with disadvantaged EU citizens. He has met a lot municipal representatives, and on 1 February 2016, he will be presenting national guidelines for how municipalities should work with these issues.
“A great deal is about the phenomenon itself, its background, free movement, moral clashes, meetings of hearts and minds. What I can see is that Sweden was taken a little by surprise and is fumbling around for a way to deal with it.”
"Do you know of a spot where I can sit too?" he wonders.
The department store spot is also taken and the stranger wonders whether the Romanian man sitting there can help him.
“Do you know of a spot where I can sit too?” he wonders.
“You can go next to the steps,” says the man, who’s sitting on the pavement by the exit.
They chat for a while. As countrymen do when they meet abroad, they ask each other which town the other comes from. The stranger says that he needs to get the money together to go home to Romania.
“Where are you sleeping tonight?” asks the man on the ground.
“I’ll have to see, I don’t know.”
“You can sleep here with us, close by, in a car park. You need blankets because it’s cold at night. But if you have a few blankets, it’s okay.”
Is begging in Swedish towns, cities and villages organised and if so, how? This has long been central to the debate about a ban. Some people are certain that criminal gangs lie behind it, others know that it’s just a myth.
The majority of people who beg, do so without any pressure from criminals and come to Sweden voluntarily, in groups that consist of family members, relatives and friends. The Swedish Police Authority confirmed this in a report they presented on 2 December 2015. But the report also confirmed that there are criminal individuals who exploit already disadvantaged EU citizens by demanding payment for their begging spots. There are also documented cases where EU immigrants’ vulnerable situations are exploited even further, usually by criminals of the same nationality. “Some criminal individuals run human trafficking operations involving children, who are used for begging, but also for theft and prostitution,” according to the report.
"The most important piece of evidence was the testimony of the plaintiffs."
According to Linda Staaf, Head of the Swedish Police Authority’s intelligence unit at NOA (Department of National Operations), it is primarily people with disabilities who are coerced into coming to Sweden. But the propensity to report crimes is described as low.
“We believe that there is a significantly higher actual crime rate, that the number of unreported crimes is actually quite high,” says Linda Staaf.
But there are examples of reported cases that have resulted in a conviction.
In January 2015 a 36-year-old Romanian was convicted of GBH, robbery and attempted extortion in Kalmar. He demanded thousands of kronor for spots he had “allotted” and when he wasn’t paid, he assaulted two people, stealing a bag that belonged to five of the beggars and which contained 3,000 kronor. He came back later, demanded more money and threatened to kill his countrymen if they didn’t pay up. The 36-year-old was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and deportation, a sentence that the court of appeal upheld in March.
District Prosecutor Thomas Hagman in Kalmar was responsible for the case in the District Court. He says:
“The most important piece of evidence was the testimony of the plaintiffs. We were so lucky that one of them could read and write and was able to tell the story in great detail themselves. We also had an independent witness and were able to link the events to a vehicle.
“Neither the accused nor the victims had been in Kalmar for very long, so it was difficult to show that it was anything systematic. There were no signs or indications of that, even if no particular investigation was made in this area. The advantage in that respect was that he was taken out of the picture,” says Thomas Hagman.
A man on his way into the shop spins round and gives the woman the finger as he walks past her.
Dark clouds pile up in the sky as we drive to our next location, our next supermarket, our next EU citizen on their knees. The young woman begging in the entrance to the shop doesn’t want to talk. The stranger who tries to get her to talk turns his back on her after a short while and walks away.
A man on his way into the shop spins round and gives the woman the finger as he walks past her – a gesture that seems to come as naturally as raising your hand to greet someone you know.
Then the old lady who’s been sitting the whole time with her stick by the trolleys on the opposite side of the entrance goes up to the begging woman. They look like they’re talking to each other and the lady gives something to the woman.
She then walks straight up to us and says:
“She said it was the mafia. That guy, the one standing and talking to her.”
“I thought, you’ve heard stuff about that, right? So I waited until he’d gone and then gave her something. She’s got three children after all. I had a snow suit that my great-grandchildren had grown out of. Warm and cosy, and it looks nice. I gave her the choice – if she wanted it, she could have it,” says the old lady.
“Because I don’t know,” she says unhappily.
The person she’s talking about is reporter Dan Bacan, not someone from the “mafia” as rumour would have it.
On Wednesday 4 November three people were arrested in Gothenburg on suspicion of trafficking linked to begging. A 39-year-old man, a 32-year-old woman and a 61-year-old woman from Bulgaria had forced several disabled people to beg in the Gothenburg area and then taken the money from them, according to Prosecutor Thomas Ahlstrand.
“Detecting this type of crime is really difficult because the victims are often in a situation that makes it hard for them to report it – their personal situation and their situation in society,” he says.
In July 2014, in Halmstad District Court, Thomas Ahlstrand charged a Bulgarian couple with organised trafficking with the aim of exploiting beggars, but the suspects were acquitted.
“This case has better external evidence – we can show that the victims were forced to surrender money.” The Halmstad case was based to a greater extent on information from the plaintiffs.
Convictions for similar crimes are few and far between. In June 2013 an 18-year-old man from Romania was convicted of fraud. He pretended to be deaf and begging on behalf of an international organisation for the deaf, and he was given a suspended sentence. In October 2010, a married couple from Romania were sentenced by Södertörn District Court to two years’ imprisonment and deportation, which was increased to three years’ imprisonment in the court of appeal, for exploiting a man with a learning disability for begging purposes.
In her research into trafficking Karin Åström, a researcher at Umeå University, has followed a few cases in which begging and trafficking have been linked. She says:
“You can say that it occurs, but it’s important to make the distinction between organised crime and trafficking – it doesn’t need to take the form that we often envisage. The exploitation can be more informal and not as structured as we imagine organised crime to be. This makes it even more difficult to detect because we’re looking for the wrong things.”
In Karin Åström’s opinion, the most important thing is that the people who are already disadvantaged are not exploited even further. Whether the exploitation is organised or informal is of little consequence. It’s more important to see things from the victims’ perspective rather than looking at the methods and perspectives of the perpetrators.
“Some of them don’t see themselves as victims of crime, and some aren’t even aware that they are. They don’t know the law or see themselves as part of the legal system. But this shouldn’t affect whether the police detect the crime or whether it’s processed within the system,” she says.
“The Trafficking Act was not created for situations like this but for trafficking for sexual purposes. I think that if we want to apply this legislation, we need to make certain adjustments based on the conditions we have.”
Our journey takes us through large and small towns, and we ask the same questions everywhere.
From Stockholm we travel west towards Gothenburg. We stop at a shopping centre on the outskirts of one of the towns on the way. We’re met by mournful accordion music in the car park.
The stranger in the blue fleece walks, cautious and uncertain, up to the accordion player.
“What should I do? I came here by bus from Stockholm and thought I could sit here. But I see you’ve already taken this spot.”
“Go to the town centre. You can make a bit of money there. Have you got nowhere to sleep? If you’ve got some money, I can sort you out with a car where you can sleep. It’ll cost you 700 kronor. But you can’t drive the car, you know, it’s just for sleeping in. I can also get you a quilt you can wrap yourself up in.”
“And the police?”
“No, nothing will happen if you park it in a car park. Are you up for it?”
Norwegian research institute Fafo has interviewed 1,200 homeless Romanians who beg in Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen. More or less all those interviewed think that having to beg is degrading and they would rather have a proper job.
Our journey takes us through large and small towns, and we ask the same questions everywhere. Sometimes we use a hidden camera and microphone to get as close to the truth as possible.
Is there anyone controlling the begging in this area? Do you need to pay to beg here? And, everywhere, we get similar responses.
“No, no one would start a fight with you. Take your coffee cup and shake it like this. Go to each platform when the trains arrive. Say ‘Hej, hej’. If you do that, it’s impossible not to earn some money,” says her friend.
“Go and work, my son. No one will ask you anything and no one will disturb you. You’re here to earn money, that’s all.”
“No, no, there’s no one. Go wherever you like. This is our spot – it’s taken. Otherwise you can sit wherever you want.”
One story stands out in our beggar's journey across Sweden.
The ongoing trafficking enquiry – due to submit its report for publication on 9 June 2016 – has been tasked with tightening the legislation to prevent people making money from other people’s begging.
Government coordinator Martin Valfridsson is of the opinion that there is some form of coordination.
“But it’s important to stress that there isn’t just one way of describing how it works, that it’s a varied phenomenon. A big part of it is about family members helping each other, about keeping what you make.
“But there are also examples of people charging for spots and taking a cut. We’ve looked at the legislation and in my view, there’s a loophole that needs to be plugged,” he says.
One story stands out in our beggar’s journey across Sweden: rumours about a person earning money from other people’s begging.
Sitting beside a shopping centre in a medium-sized Swedish town is a man in a red jacket. He tells us:
“I know of a Bulgarian person who has four of his own begging for him.”
“Are they members of his family?”
“No, brother. This is how it works: ‘I bring you here, you make the money and we share it.’ Get it? But he doesn’t share it – he doesn’t part with any of it.”
The man tells us about huge fights in the town between the Romanians – including himself – and the Bulgarians.
“A load of stuff goes on. We’ve fought against about 40 of them. There are a lot of them, brother. What can I do about it? In the town centre, for example, I can’t do anything because anyone who wants to sit there can do so. But they can’t come to my spot next to the shop because if they do, I call my people immediately.”
It ended up with two of them jumping a person in Kyrkparken and assaulting them.
Reports turn up in the media every now and then about disputes between different groups of EU citizens, where the police have been involved. Over the past six months, fights have been reported in towns and cities such as Karlskrona, Uddevalla, Älmhult, Uppsala, Katrineholm, Hudiksvall and Stockholm.
In March, a dispute arose in Östersund between two large groups of EU citizens who both thought they were entitled to the best spots outside a large supermarket and the state-run alcohol shop, Systembolaget.
Per Thelin, who led the preliminary police investigation in Östersund, says:
“You could say that there were two big families who came to blows about who could sit in which spot.” It ended up with two of them jumping a person in Kyrkparken and assaulting them.
“They were charged with GBH – it happened in the centre of town and there were witnesses so the two perpetrators were convicted and sentenced to six months in prison. Both groups have subsequently left Östersund,” says Per Thelin.
There were also reports from both groups that the other group had demanded a percentage of the money made, but that part couldn’t be confirmed.
Hate crimes against EU immigrants are on the rise, which is evident from the status reports issued by the police and various organisations, as well as in statistics from the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention.
These crimes involve both verbal attacks and violent crimes, from spitting and kicking to setting fire to a person’s belongings or running someone over with a moped.
His eyes are wide open and pearls of saliva fly out of his mouth.
It’s payday when we make our final stop in Stockholm, in the exclusive Stureplan district of the city. Doina Stefan is one of the many beggars in the area. She came here two months ago with her husband. We follow her for a couple of hours in nighttime Stockholm.
An inebriated man stops in front of her. His eyes are wide open and pearls of saliva fly out of his mouth.
“Your husband’s smoking. That’s a really big problem. He’s got money. How can you smoke when you have no money?”
Doina Stefan indicates politely that she’s not interested in talking. But the man doesn’t stop.
“That’s Swedish taxpayers’ money. No, no, no, not good.”
Government Coordinator Martin Valfridsson says that he’s worried about the hate crimes against EU citizens who beg.
“I met a man who’d had all his teeth knocked out when he sat begging, and another who’d had acid thrown over him.”
“We need to encourage the group of people exposed to this kind of crime, and the public who witness it, to report the perpetrators and testify against them. Otherwise, our society will be heading down a very slippery slope.”
"I don't believe them. They're richer than we are. They've got money but they act like they're poor."
Not many of the weekend revellers at Stureplan even glance in the direction of Doina Stefan or the other beggars.
“It feels tough, but what can I do about it?” she says.
But there are also people who feel provoked. When we walk along Kungsgatan, we see three young girls taunting an older woman when she holds out her cup.
“Please, help me,” says one of the girls, putting on a voice and then she says:
“Do you take cards? Turn around so I can swipe my card.”
“I don’t believe them. They’re richer than we are. They’ve got money but they act like they’re poor,” says her friend.