Romania and Sweden need to keep trying to find a solution for the Roma beggars

Posted on 04. September 2015

by Hanna Engblom & Miruna Troncota

hanna-engblommiruna-troncotaThis year the EU has gone through critical times in dealing with an immigration crisis unprecendented in its scope. However, a new and unexpected issue appeared on the agenda: in just one year, the number of Roma people in Sweden has almost doubled. Sweden now hosts more than 300 camps with immigrants from Eastern Europe, the overwhelming majority of which come from Romania, where there are no jobs or housing and Roma people have limited possibilities to earn a decent living. Ironically, the year 2015 not only marks the end of the Decade for Roma Inclusion initiative, which did not bring all the expected results, but also the midway point of the “EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020″. As such, we believe this is a relevant moment to reflect on the ways in which Romania, Sweden and the EU have tried to find a solution for the Roma beggars from Romania that fill the Swedish streets. The following blog post is an attempt to analyse the most recent media debates both in Romania and in Sweden and to put the issue in a wider context by looking at the several turning points that have contributed to the inflating debate on Roma from Romania in Sweden.

After January 1st 2014, when the restrictions on Romanians living and working in other EU countries were lifted, some EU countries started to voice their concerns over a future ”invasion” of what they called ”Romanian immigrants” rather than Romanian mobile EU citizens. Populist politicians from Germany and Great Britain were already making the headlines with racist proposals and statements directed specifically against the Roma citizens from Romania. This particular ethnic minority is evidently discriminated against in public discourse, as they are often identified as ”immigrants” while other groups of Romanians, who decide to use their right to move to another EU member state and work as doctors or engineers are labelled as ”expats”. It seems that only well educated Romanians can be considered EU citizens, capable of pursuing their career in any EU member state they choose. As the latest media debates have shown, other social categories, especially the ones exposed to extreme poverty and marginalisation, do not benefit from this right of free movement, as they are often treated as citizens who live „outside” of the EU, who threaten the peace and stability in our countries…. This situation was aggravated by the economic crisis and rising levels of unemployment, causing all foreigners, even other EU citizens, to be seen as a burden. The instability of the labour market transformed a measure that was expected to enforce one of the most important values of the EU – free movement of people inside EU borders – into a measure that sparked nationalist rhetoric and discriminatory discourses targeted against the less-skilled people, who are treated as a sort of ”second-class EU citizens” and are not even welcome anymore in certain EU member states. In these public debates, the Roma from Romania were mostly seen as a social threat because their main activities were predominantly connected to stealing, begging or requesting social benefits.

In the past year, the European public debate on the Roma beggars from Romania has made a visible shift as the issue reached Northern Europe, and Sweden especially, a country known for its efficient social inclusion mechanisms and the most immigrant-friendly policy in Scandinavia. In 2015 the media devoted a lot of attention to the rising numbers of Roma beggars from Romania in Sweden.

The Problem – The Rising Number of Roma People from Romania in Sweden

The Roma population is the largest ethnic minority in Europe, spread across various countries and without connection to a certain territory. The harsh economic realities that emerged from the economic crisis affected the lives of the Roma people directly, making them the category of EU citizens mostly exposed to situations of social risk, despite huge amounts of EU funds directed to their social inclusion. Based on the last census conducted in Romania in 2011, a total of 621.573 persons declared themselves as Roma (about 3% of the total population), being the second largest ethnic group in Romania after the Hungarian minority. But if the people who do not dare to declare themselves Roma or the ones without any identification documents are counted the total number goes up to almost 1.5 million (according to the European Commission) or even 3 million (as estimated by the World Bank). As many NGOs have shown, the situation is puzzling- almost two-thirds of the total Roma population in Romania do not declare themselves as Roma because they fear isolation, discrimination and shame. However, the discrimination of the Roma people is not a new thing in Europe – it goes back centuries.

The first Roma people – the “travellers” – came to Sweden in the early 16thcentury. It didn’t take long before the discrimination started. The travellers were widely seen as thieves and rascals and Swedish citizens were advised not to have any contact with them. In the 17th century laws were enacted to banish the travellers from Sweden. Many of them were sent to what is now Germany and Finland, but some travellers remained in Sweden at the risk of their lives. After the end of the enslavement of the Roma people in Romania in the 19th century, a new wave of Roma people came to Sweden. These were called “gypsies”. Between the years 1914-1954 Sweden had an entry ban for Roma people. Many of the Roma people already in Sweden during this time were subjected to forced sterilization. During the 1950’s things started to change. Sweden gradually started to see the Roma people as citizens, granting them rights and trying to integrate them into the Swedish society. In 2000 the Roma people received the status of a national minority in Sweden. Looking at the worrisome situations they are confronted with these days, we can see that the treatment of the Roma people has not substantially improved during the last decades.

Roma people from Romania started to arrive in Sweden in bigger numbers after Romania became an EU country in 2007 and especially after working and living restrictions on Romanians were lifted in January 2014.It is nearly impossible for them to get a job in Romania to provide for their families, which means that they are forced to leave their families behind and travel elsewhere to try and find work. In the Nordic countries it is very difficult to get a job if you don’t speak the official language of the country, and even harder if you don’t even speak English. This is the case for many Roma people that come to Sweden, since they are poor and uneducated. For many Roma people this means that they have no other choice than to beg for money in the streets.

Around 4000 beggars from other EU countries were estimated to be in Sweden in April this year, most of them Roma people. According to a study conducted by SVT, the Swedish public service broadcaster, the number has more than doubled since last year. Around 50.000 Roma people in total were estimated to live in Sweden in 2010, 80% of which were unemployed. There are estimations that in the centre of Stockholm alone there are more than 500 beggars from Eastern Europe, 90% of which come from Romania. Each of them earns roughly around 20 euros a day, which is more than what they would get for a low-skilled job in Romania. As presented in a TV documentary produced by Antena 3 TV station in Romania called “Lost paradise. I offer a reward” in May 2015, they see themselves as trapped in this type of life with no hopes or prospects They feel obliged to beg because this is the only job that does not require any training or language skills. It does however require one to accept losing one’s dignity and to endure difficult inhumane living conditions that nobody else in society could endure.

Sweden was shocked in 2013 when it was revealed that the police in the Swedish Skåne County had, over several years, held an illegal register listing all Roma-Swedes in the region,. The list contained more than 4000 names, 800 of which were children. The list had been used in investigations concerning suspects of Roma heritage. Although the incident spurred some protests among both Roma and non-Roma Swedes, the rhetoric in Swedish media and politics was still harsh. Even though for example Sverigedemokraterna, a right-wing populist party, officially condemned the register, one of its Members of Parliament publicly defended the registration of Roma people. Another of the party’s members compared the Roma people to a cancer. Sverigedemokraterna says that Sweden should ban what they call “organised begging” and at the same time restrict the flow of persons to Sweden who “only come to beg or commit crimes”. There is, however, very little evidence that Romanian beggars in northern Europe are managed by organised crime groups.

Begging has never been banned in Sweden. At the moment there is also no law that explicitly forbids the exploitation of beggars. Nevertheless, Morgan Johansson, the Swedish Minister of Justice, stated that there are three things that Sweden will not tolerate: people who are being used or exploited for begging, campsites on public domain and the physical harassment of beggars. In late 2014 the Romanian Ambassador to Stockholm shocked the public by suggesting that Sweden should ban begging as a way to stem the Roma inflow. If the representative of the Romanian state makes such a proposal, how do we expect to find a viable solution that would not automatically criminalise the whole Roma population?

The public debate in Sweden has lately focused on the big campsites that the Roma people from Romania have established on public property. Many cities have evicted the Roma people from public property, often without any suggestions as to where they are supposed to live instead. In Malmö the Roma people have been living in one of the city’s parks, which has not been well received by (some of) the city’s inhabitants. The campsite and its inhabitants have been subjected to acts of hate crime, which has forced some of its inhabitants to move back to Romania. One can just imagine the fear they must live in, in order to willingly return back home to the misery they were forced to leave in the first place. The Roma people declare that they decided to move to Sweden from other parts of Europe or from Romania because Swedish people are very kind and generous. The fact that Sweden was perceived as a safe haven for these categories of poor Romanians made it an attractive destination for Roma. But their rising numbers impacts the city in many ways. They brought their extended families and relatives. They live in very difficult conditions in illegal campsites or just in the middle of the streets. Their situation cannot be ignored.

Who protects the Roma?

The ‘EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies by 2020′ envisioned a period of 10 years to significantly better the living conditions of the Roma population and it identified four objectives that would help the Roma inclusion in all EU member states – (1) access to education; (2) integration into the work force; (3) medical assistances; and (4) access to housing. Consequently, the Strategy of the Government of Romania for the Inclusion of Romanian Citizens Belonging to the Roma Minority for the Period 2012-2020 was adopted in December 2011 and started to be implemented from 2012 onwards.

Romanian communities who live abroad have recently requested the change of denomination from Roma back to gypsies as they do not like the association between Roma and Romanian. Bogdan Diaconu, a young Romanian MP from a small-scale nationalist political party proposed in April this year a new law in which the official denomination of Roma will be changed back to the term ”țigan” (known as gypsy and often used in a pejorative sense) in order to avoid the confusion between Roma and Romanians especially outside of the country, where Romanians in general are easily   associated with all the illegal activities conducted by Roma. The proposal caused a fierce debate. There is still some good news. In April 2015 Ciprian Necula, one of the most active NGO leaders fighting for the rights of the Roma community in Romania, was assigned State-Secretary on Roma at the Romanian Ministry of European Funds. He has been criticising the Romanian government for their poor management of the EU funds aimed at Roma inclusion in the Romanian society for more than 15 years. Now he has been given the opportunity to put his experience in working with local communities into practice at the national level and manage EU funds with vision and compassion. His appointment was intended as an acknowledgement of his previous work – he is an experienced project manager and activist on Roma issues – and it is hoped he would be actively involved in more efficient public spending and state redistribution of money in Roma communities. One of his main ideas is that solving the problems of Roma beggars is not a Romanian but a European problem and that there is a need for a multi-level cooperation between various entities (from local to European) that need to focus on the source of the problem, not its consequences. This means focusing not on Roma people begging or being involved in illegal activities in other European countries but on the fact that they do not go to school, they do not have a job and no external assistance is given for helping them get a job and earn a decent living for their families. There are reasons to have great expectations from Ciprian Necula in the years to come, as he is a representative of the younger generation of leaders that can bring viable solutions to Roma problems in Romania and it may be considered a good sign that the Romanian Government Strategy is opening up to new people and new solutions, despite the persistent discriminatory discourses and blame shifting.

Proposed solutions

There have been several attempts to solve the Roma people’s situation in Sweden. In 2012 the Swedish government adopted a long-term strategy on the inclusion of the Roma people in Sweden. The strategy states that additional effort will be focused on integrating the Roma population through education, work possibilities and helping them to become more influential in society. The goal is that a Roma person who is 20 years old in 2032 will have the same possibilities in life as a 20-year-old non-Roma person has.

In January this year the Swedish Minister for Children, the Elderly and Gender Equality, Åsa Regnér, and the Minister for Social Security, Annika Strandhäll, met with the Romanian Minister of Labour, Rovana Plumb, to discuss the Roma beggars. They agreed to cooperate on supporting the Roma beggers of Romanian origin. The focus would be to ensure that these persons would have other solutions than to come to Sweden to beg. This would be solved by ensuring sufficient housing, education and healthcare for them back home in Romania. The Memorandum of Understanding was signed in June by both parties. A working group is to be established during the summer.

Moreover, in late June this year the Romanian Minister of Labour Rovana Plumb declared that Romania intends to send Romanian mediators to Sweden to talk to the beggars, to assess their direct needs and to develop cooperation projects between Romanian and Swedish NGOs for their social inclusion back in Romania. The Romanian mediators were, however, confronted with a problem: that the mediators could not communicate with them. This could be solved by including Roma NGOs from Romania in the process and Romanian mediators who are fluent in Romani.


Sweden is considered to be one of the most tolerant nations in the world and a leader in Europe when it comes to social inclusion and respect for human rights. From this perspective the social impact of Roma beggars on Swedish citizens in particular is puzzling as it has provoked both reactions of solidarity and numerous private initiatives for helping this social vulnerable group, but it has also provoked racist and nationalist rhetoric and even hate crimes.

On one hand, it is easy to criticise Sweden’s and other EU countries’ way of handling the situation of the Roma beggars. There are, however, some who say that the real way to help the beggers would be to ensure that their living situation back home in Romania would improve so that they wouldn’t feel forced to go abroad to beg in order to make a living in the first place. Between 2007 and 2013, the EU earmarked 32 billion Swedish kronor to improve the situation for the poor in Romania. Romania has however only used a small part of this money for helping the Roma people’s situation in the country. Sweden has condemned this, and has several times urged Romania to improve the situation of the Roma people. For example, Sweden has suggested that they would put together an expert group to make sure that the EU money really reaches the poor, but the idea was abandoned after the Romanian government refused to accept that the EU Commission would be included in the expert group.

On the other hand, it is also easy to criticise Romania for not absorbing and efficiently using EU funds targeted to promote the inclusion of the Roma in Romanian society and the labour market. What is mostly worrying from our point of view is the continuous blame-game between the two sides and the structure of the discriminating discourse that places the issue in an ‘us vs. them’ framework. The Romanian government often denies that this is a problem that concerns them and instead shifts the responsibility to other EU countries and their inability to tackle the Roma inclusion ”in their own backyard”.

We believe that the free movement of people in EU is non-negotiable but there is a need to understand the mentality of this high-risk social group and to involve all parties in helping them to make informed and sustainable choices. The Romanian government should help the beggars who want to return home, while host countries should avoid the kind of exportation and symbolical violence that we have witnessed in France. It has been proven that merely sending the beggars back home and granting them an amount of money does not solve the problem (as already experienced in France and Great Britain), since upon returning home they find the same horrible living conditions and thus they just move to other countries in order to make a living out of social benefits, as they do not have other alternatives. Sweden may be on to something – the real solution is to ensure that the Roma people in Romania would have other solutions than to come to Sweden to beg, i.e. so the real solution would be to improve their possibilities and living conditions back home in Romania. This should, however, not solely be Romania’s responsibility; it is essential that current Roma host-countries would offer aid, in the same way that Sweden recently has decided to do.

Any person in a vulnerable situation that becomes a beggar in order to earn his or her living is being exposed to numerous risks that we often ignore. Beggars have to endure not only extreme poverty and harsh living conditions, but also harsh weather conditions, racism, hatred and prejudice. We should all acknowledge the fact that regardless of their ethnic legacy and tradition of nomad life, no human being ever enjoys sleeping on the ground, bathing in public toilets once in a few weeks, eating from the garbage and exposed to humiliation, begging not for financial gains but for the right to survive. This understanding should implore us to work together for a better alternative.