It isn’t just hundreds of miles between the camp in Högdalen and the Romanian village of Malu Vanat. There’s also miles of difference in the standard of living.
Thirty-two year-old Gheorghe, a blond, muscular man with a sunburned chest wearing grey flowered shorts, has a large plot with two houses – an old one, and a new one, which he is just finishing building. The yard behind the houses overlooks a lake. Horses are grazing in the fields.
Gheorghe goes into his new living room, opens the laptop sitting on top of the television and searches for something on the internet.
The children ride bareback and stroke the pigs. Hammering can be heard from the neighbours. Many of the drives are strewn with construction materials.
The money being turned into houses was earned on Swedish asphalt. Almost everyone in Malu Vanat has been begging in Stockholm and lived in tents in the camp at Högdalen.
They are Boyash, a minority people who are often called Roma. They themselves want to be called Romanians.
Gheorghe goes into his new living room, opens the laptop sitting on top of the television and searches for something on the internet. One of his sons is running around playing in a Swedish football shirt.
The family started building the new house during the financial crisis, when things got cheaper. At the same time, Gheorghe and several other men in the village lost their jobs.
Gheorghe says he has been offered jobs in Romania, "but the pay's too low." You can earn more in Stockholm. Before the financial crisis, Gheorghe was an onsite metalworker. Living in a tent in Högdalen and begging outside the T-centralen underground station – far from his family – is something he describes as a hard life. Gheorghe has a big plot of land with two houses – an old one and a new two-storey one he is just completing.
“Before the crisis, we were metalworkers on building sites,” he says, fishing out a cigarette packet.
Aren’t there any jobs like that anymore?
“Yes, I’ve been offered jobs but the pay isn’t good enough.”
He describes living in a tent in Högdalen and begging at Stockholm’s central metro station T-centralen as an incredibly hard life. Stockholm is far from his home and family in Malu Vanat. But you can earn more money there.
In Romania the men can earn about 1,700 kronor after tax. This is what my interpreter earns as a local government employee in Bucharest – a young woman with two degrees who is reading for a third. She bows her head and clenches her teeth when the men say you can’t work for so little money. They have been begging for years now – in Italy, Germany and Sweden.
”It's much better in Stockholm because the benefits are higher and you can drink coffee and eat for free, and have showers.”
One couple who can’t afford to extend their little turquoise house are Gheorghe State, 48, and Georgeta State, 42. Gheorghe walks around the farm barefoot, and there’s a washing machine standing on the gravel. He waves his arms:
“Far too small! Two rooms! 17 people!
Gheorghe and Georgeta have five children – aged 24, 23, 17, 14 and 13 – and ten grandchildren.
All the children are married and have children of their own – even the 13 and 14 year-old. None of the children go to school, which is free. Because they don’t go to school, they don’t get child allowance.
The parents and the three oldest children have been begging in Flemingsberg. Gheorghe pours out coffee and Coca-Cola on a rickety table in one of the crowded rooms and dreams of leading a different life:
“If the benefits in Romania were as good as they are in Sweden, we wouldn’t travel anywhere. It’s much better in Stockholm because the benefits are higher and you can drink coffee and eat for free, and have showers.
Is it free? I interrupt.
“Yes, Swedes give us coffee and food when we sit on the street. We get medicine and clothes too. Alvedon!”
He continues at the same rapid pace:
“Unemployed people in Sweden get benefits! In Sweden people get 10,000 kronor if they have four children! In Sweden someone will give you what you need for free if you haven’t got it. And the police are kind. We have no problem with the police in Sweden. They came to our caravan and asked if we were OK!”
”We spent the money on food and paid the bus fare to come home again."
He laughs as if he was talking about paradise.
Have you been able to save any of the money you earned from begging?
“No, not saved. We spent the money on food and paid the bus fare to come home again.”
What do you need for a better life?
“Munca, munca! Work! Cleaning, washing.”
Have you looked for a job in Bucharest?
“No, not in Bucharest. People with an education can’t get a job there.”
Here in the village then?
“Just casual work. Farm work.”
Unemployment has crippled many Romanian towns. One of them is the industrial town of Buzau, whose claims to fame are a brewery and a muddy ghetto.
About 4,500 Roma live among the ethnic Romanians in the town’s residential areas. About 500 Roma live in Aleea Gradinilor. Its name means Garden Street.
There aren’t any gardens here.
Here people walk around in sludge and urine among corrugated iron. People are getting drunk, someone is standing on a roof shouting that he is a thief and has just got out of prison.
Almost everyone in the ghetto has been begging in Örebro. Those who brought money back with them are rebuilding their shacks to turn them into houses.
There’s a rumour in Aleea Gradinilor that Örebro pays beggars 1 500 euros to travel home.
A father of five who wants to connect electricity to his house has heard this and has come up with a plan:
“As soon as I’ve saved enough for the bus ticket to Sweden, I’m going to go there and just take the money and travel home again.”
When I check with Örebro, the rumour proves to be unfounded – what they did was pay for bus tickets for beggars who chose to return to Romania.
Nineteen year-old Doru proudly cycles through the ghetto in a silver quilted jacket. He went to Falkenberg in Sweden and collected bottles and cans to claim the deposit back – and worked illegally doing some painting in the house of a Swedish man.
"In Sweden I can earn in a day what I earn in a month in Romania. We'll carry on travelling to Sweden until it gets harder to get in."
“500 kronor in my pocket every day!” he smiles, with a side parting and bright eyes.
He is a trained hairdresser and wants to work as a hairdresser in Romania but the only job he can get round here is as a plumber and almost nobody wants to do that as the pay is too low.
“In Sweden I can earn in a day what I earn in a month in Romania. We’ll carry on travelling to Sweden until it gets harder to get in.”
Will it get harder to travel to Sweden?
“Yes, I’ve heard it’s going to get harder to get into Sweden if you don’t have a job. Lots of people say it might be like that. We’ll keep going as long as we can.”
Doru cycles with me to the end of the ghetto. This is as far as his life stretches.
To the end of the muddy soup.
The people in the village are Boyash, a minority group who are rather carelessly usually referred to as Roma. Personally they would rather be called Romanians. A lot of the residents of Manu Vanat have been to Sweden and begged for money. Here is Gheorghe, a boy and a horse that hasn't got enought food. A lot of the houses in Manu Vanat were built, or extended, with money the villagers earned in Sweden.
The Swedish organisation Heart to Heart helps vulnerable people in Romania. They offer children help with homework, as well as jobs as an alternative to begging – they think that education and legal work are the only things that can break the exclusion in which the poor live.
At the moment Heart to Heart has five employees who make baskets and earn 3,600 kronor after tax, legally, every month. The idea is to be able to carry out manufacturing on a large scale and to sell the baskets in Swedish supermarkets such as ICA and Konsum so as to employ more people.
However, it’s hard to get people to take the jobs. Romanian Razvan Popescu travels around the villages and tries to get people on board. His goal has been to employ 50 people but the outlook is starting to look bleak. When I meet him in Bucharest, he throws out his arms :
“Most people say no because they can earn more from begging in Sweden.”
"I met the politicians from Stockholm in Brussels in 2004 and warned them that beggars would come to Sweden once Romania joined the EU. No-one listened.
One consequence of the begging is that many children are left at home alone in Romania – often in conditions similar to ghettos.
When I ask Valeriu Nicolae, a Romanian Roma who has won a number of awards for his human rights work with Roma and other minorities, what happens to these children, he answers:
“It kills the children. We are creating the next generation of beggars, drug abusers, people living in extreme poverty and exclusion, and criminals.”
Ten years ago he tried to get Sweden to understand that something needs to be done about Romania’s ghettos. He repeats his story:
“I met the politicians from Stockholm in Brussels in 2004 and warned them that beggars would come to Sweden once Romania joined the EU. No-one listened. I said it again in 2008. No-one listened. In 2012 they came to me and said: ‘We have a problem with beggars.’ I thought: ‘Idiots’, and I told them: ‘Well, it’s too late now.’”
Valeriu Nicolae works with children in the most dangerous ghetto in Bucharest – Livezilor in Ferentari. He offers them activities such as sport, music and help with homework. He also pays mothers who are at risk of travelling abroad and begging 1,250 kronor a month for them to stay at home with their children and accompany them to school and learn alongside them – it gives an education to two generations and keeps families together.
Under the sun in a courtyard in a peaceful part of Bucharest, children are playing football. All are children who have been left alone and are being looked after by the Romanian Life and Light Mission, which is supported by the Swedish aid organisation Läkarmissionen.
Managing director Florin Ianovici has been working with vulnerable and homeless people for 22 years.
”We need to contact aid organisations and agencies and find a long-term solution for how these people can change their lives."
When I ask whether it is a good thing to give money to beggars in Sweden, he utterly condemns it:
“Absolutely not. If you give them money, it’s like giving them a salary for sitting on the street. It will lead to them staying on the street and that will encourage even more of them to come to Sweden. And while they’re sitting there begging on the streets, their children will be left home alone with no-one looking after them, they won’t get an education and the family won’t have a future.”
What kind of help do they need then?
“They need professional help. We might feel guilty because we have well-ordered lives and a home to live in, but it’s more important to do something more than give money. We need to contact aid organisations and agencies and find a long-term solution for how these people can change their lives.”
Florin Ianovici works on the principle that you should never give without demanding something in return. If you give children in the ghettos clothes, for example, they often go to the nearest street corner and sell them. To combat that, you can give them clothes in return for them coming to football training.
The arguments are the same when it comes to adults. If Life and Light pay off a family’s unpaid bills, they must promise to let their daughters finish school and not marry them off.
”Standing on the street for two or three minutes and giving them money is no solution. It's no help at all really.”
He considers that the situation is too complex to be solved on the streets and that help should be given at home.
“The best thing would be to try to solve the problems here in Romania. Find the roots of the problem. What’s missing in their lives, how they can be integrated into society, what education they need, what jobs they can get – contact companies and draw up a sustainable plan. This takes time and requires investments. But it’s the only way. Standing on the street for two or three minutes and giving them money is no solution. It’s no help at all really.”
Interpreter and researcher: Madalina Botoran