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Affluent Finland debates how to deal with beggars

By Richa Sharma, IANS,

Helsinki : With her bowed head and folded hands, 40-year-old Illish Moldovan sits in a busy street of Helsinki seeking alms as her paper glass carrying a few coins waits for more. She is among some 100 immigrant Romanian beggars who have sparked a debate in this tiny and affluent Scandinavian country about making begging illegal.

“I came to the city a year ago as we don’t have a source of income in Romania. I have five children and have to feed them. I live in a tent on the outskirts of Helsinki with my family,” said Moldovan, dressed in a wraparound skirt and jacket with a scarf on her head.

Several beggars, some with infants in tow, can be spotted as one walks down streets near Helsinki’s main shopping centre and railway station.

“I get somewhere between five to eight euros per day, but it is very difficult to get anything during winter. I am so old that I can’t work and have to survive on alms,” said Tertu Kirjavainen, another beggar.

Rising numbers of women and children begging on streets of the city have left Finnish people confused as two years ago there were no beggars in this technology-efficient country where a majority of the population works. Finland has a population of just 5.3 million, a third of Delhi.

“It’s a different kind of experience for us when we see small children and old women with begging bowls on streets. I really don’t know whether I should give them alms or not. Everybody here is so confused as we have never seen beggars but just last summer when their number increased phenomenally,” Mikko Koivumma, a public relations professional, told a visiting IANS correspondent.

According to official figures, there are some 100 beggars in Finland and most of them are Romanian and Bulgarian, who migrated to Finland after both the countries joined the European Union in 2007.

“Discussions have been going on at both government and public levels whether begging should be illegal or the government should provide some financial assistance to the migrants. But we are yet to reach some conclusion,” said Osmo Makiniemi, a shopkeeper at the City Centre here.

With the increase in the beggar population, city authorities have asked for guidance from the government on how to deal with the issue as begging is not a crime under Finnish law unless it causes a disturbance.

Police say that the activities of the Romanian beggars appear to be organised but there is little they can do about the matter, as according to the new Public Order Act introduced in 2003, begging in itself is not prohibited.

Many people claim that beggars come in big vans and spread themselves across the city. Some Romanians were arrested by the police for being involved in thefts, said another resident.

As per the law, Romanian and Bulgarian citizens are allowed to spend up to three months in another EU country without any special reason. They can be expelled only if they have committed serious or repeated crimes. Begging is not considered an offence that would warrant deportation.

In 2008, the Helsinki Deaconess Institute launched a project entitled The Roma on the Road in cooperation with the Helsinki city authorities. The goal of the project was to examine how and why migrant beggars from eastern Europe have come to Finland, to help them in job hunting and to assist them in general, as well as to motivate them to return home.

The institute is a 140-year-old public utility foundation that provides social and healthcare services as well as educational programmes.

(Richa Sharma can be contacted at [email protected])