Sweden’s tolerant image compromised by attacks on Roma

Beggars from poor EU states are splitting Swedish society and fuelling extremism

After begging through the night outside bars and nightclubs, Gheorghe Rancu, a homeless migrant from Romania, was asleep one morning this summer in a Stockholm park when he woke with a start and felt a sharp pain on his face.

“I could feel the skin peeling. I jumped up. I closed my eyes,” he said, pointing to the park location where someone doused him with a corrosive fluid that the police suspect contained chlorine. “I thought I was going to die.”

With hospital treatment, Rancu managed to avoid scarring. But the assault, for which there is no suspect, has left a different kind of mark.

“When I come to this park I am shaking,” said Rancu, who looks older than his 27 years and who says he wants to return to Romania as soon as he has money.

Tolerant reputation

The attack, in Berzelii Park, was one of a growing number on Roma migrants here, a trend that challenges Sweden’s reputation as one of Europe’s most tolerant and welcoming nations.

It also speaks to a wrinkle in the debate over the waves of migration that are posing political, economic and social challenges across Europe. Unlike refugees from Syria, Africa and other war-torn and impoverished places who arrive in Europe illegally, citizens of European Union nations like Romania are free to travel wherever they wish within the bloc.

But while refugees from outside Europe who gain asylum become eligible for basic social welfare benefits, poor European migrants who lack jobs – most notably the transient Roma beggars – typically get little or no help from the government safety net.

Sweden granted 31,220 asylum applications last year from refugees coming from outside the European Union. But now it is also struggling with an influx of migrants from poorer southern European nations like Romania who have become a flashpoint in the conflict over the limits of European generosity.

"The issue is being discussed in every town and city in Sweden," said Sven Hovmoller, a professor of chemistry at Stockholm University and vice-chairman of an organisation created to support homeless migrants, called HEM, or "foreningen for hemlosa EU-migranter".

“Anywhere in the country, as long as there is a food store, there will be someone sitting outside it begging,” he added. That is partly because, as he put it, “poor people have noticed that they, too, can move around Europe to try to find a better future”.

Poverty in Romania makes that country a significant point of origin for such migrants, especially for Roma people, also known as Gypsies, many of whom also face prejudice; according to Eurostat, Romania has one of the lowest wealth levels in the entire bloc.

In Sweden, the issue has helped fuel the rise of a right-wing, populist, anti-immigration party, the Sweden Democrats, which won 13 per cent of the vote in last year's national elections. There have been similar political reactions in Denmark, France and Britain, with concerns about the influx of EU workers fuelling a debate over whether Britain should quit the union.

Populist parties

“It is the biggest change in decades,” said Andreas Johansson Heino, publishing director of Timbro, a research institute, referring to the rise of the Sweden Democrats. “In Sweden, the lack of an anti-immigrant party was part of Swedish identity. We thought that here, we don’t have such populist parties.”

Begging is not illegal in Sweden, but the Sweden Democrats want to criminalise it – at least in what the party calls its “organised” form.

The police here say there are some 4,000 beggars in Sweden, of which 1,000 to 1,500 are in Stockholm. Linda Staaf, head of the intelligence division at the Swedish police department of national operations, said attacks against the Roma had increased, and opinion among Swedes was polarised between those hostile to begging and those who see beggars as people in need of help.

But the visibility of beggars – often carrying their possessions in the familiar large blue plastic bags from Ikea, one of Sweden’s best-known brands – has undoubtedly disconcerted many Swedes.

In their well-ordered, affluent society, begging has been rare, according to Anna-Sophia Quensel, a researcher for Expo, an organisation set up by the late writer Stieg Larsson to combat right-wing extremism.

“It’s splitting society into two,” she said, adding that beggars force Swedes to choose between engaging with, or ignoring, poor people who were rarely visible before.

Charity workers say that while some Roma commit petty crimes, they are on the receiving end of much worse.

From media reports, Expo has counted 77 attacks against beggars in the last 18 months, though charities expect the real figure is greater as such crimes tend to be underreported.

Camp burned

The attacks include one in Malmo where tents in a Roma camp were set on fire; another in Boras, where a beggar was run over by a moped; and one in Skara, where at least one migrant was hit by a pellet from an air rifle.

Some internet pages highlight complaints against beggars, often referred to here as “European Union migrants”, and activists say the police give low priority to attacks on the beggars – an assertion the authorities deny.

Faced with growing problems, the government has appointed a national co-ordinator, Martin Valfridsson, for vulnerable EU citizens.

He describes hate crimes against the Roma as “evil”. In recent months, he says, Sweden has struck an agreement with Romania’s government to encourage co-operation between the countries’ health and social workers.

Valfridsson favours legal changes to help prosecute migrants who control begging sites and extort a portion of the proceeds from the actual beggars.

But he also wants to make it simpler for landowners to evict beggars from makeshift camps. “The message must be that you cannot simply live in the woods,” he said.

“If you come to Sweden you have to make sure that you make enough money for a simple camp, or bed and breakfast.” – (New York Times service)