On Stockholm’s Streets

Bernard Porter and Kajsa Ohrlander

Three years ago there weren’t many beggars on Stockholm’s streets. Some homeless, yes, selling Situation (the Swedish equivalent of the Big Issue), a few buskers in the Tunnelbana; but not men and women huddled in doorways, wrapped in blankets – it’s well below freezing here now – with stories of sick children, homelessness and hunger scrawled on squares of cardboard beside them, and paper coffee cups for passers-by to put coins into, or not. This is new. It’s a shock for someone who’s been coming to Sweden for years, always impressed by the absence of obvious signs of poverty, only too familiar in the UK and elsewhere in Western Europe, but relieved in Sweden by the generous welfare safety net. It seems so very osvensk.

Most of the people begging are Roma, mostly from Romania. According to official statistics there are around 2000 Roma beggars in Sweden. They are refugees of a kind: economic rather than political. Sweden is famously generous towards refugees – admitting far more proportionally than any other Western country, and treating them rather better – but is clearly finding it difficult to cope with these economic migrants from south-east Europe. The general population has mixed feelings about them. The press and TV carry horrifying stories of their persecution in Romania, how they are chased away from their homes, excluded from jobs, their children not allowed in schools; and of their desperate struggles for everyday survival in Sweden. An art installation in Malmö features two Roma sitting with paper cups, apparently designed to make them more understandable, though it has also been criticised as ‘objectifying poverty’.

On the other hand there are people who see the Roma as parasites, their ‘sob stories’ invented; a video of two of them hobbling on crutches then later walking normally was posted on YouTube a few months ago. Some are supposed to be begging ‘professionally’, organised in criminal gangs. ‘The office where I work has a view over one such beggar spot, and twice a day, 11-ish and 3-ish like clockwork, the boss comes by in a dark Mercedes and collects the loot,’ an American who lives in Sweden wrote on his blog in December. He’s the only one telling it how it is: the ‘mainstream media’, he says, dismiss his view as ‘fantasy’ in order ‘to make regular Swedes open their hearts and wallets without realising they’re merely helping the fat guy get a third Rolex’. It’s difficult to see how the Roma can possibly earn enough to feed themselves this way, let alone send money home for their kids’ hospital fees and pay for Rolexes: research suggests that their average haul, each, is around 50-150 kronor a day (50 kr will buy you a couple of coffees and a korv); but it may appease the consciences of uncomfortable non-donors to believe this. A 2011 report on racist violence in Sweden found that ‘the victimisation of Roma is increasing’, but ‘there is still lack of knowledge about the exposure of Roma to hate crime and discrimination.’

The Sverige Demokraterna – right-wing, anti-immigrant, Europhobic – want to get rid of them all, just like that. But they can’t, within the terms of the EU principle of ‘free movement’, which is one of the reasons the Roma are here. Another is that they find the Swedes polite and welcoming, compared to their neighbours in Romania; or so they tell researchers and interviewers. (It must make up for the cold.) In truth, Sweden has made great efforts at coming to terms with its historic discrimination against Roma, and now even has a Roma-born MEP. Anti-discrimination is the respectable political discourse here. As a consequence, local authorities are duty bound to aid the Roma, and there are charities for them, and camp sites.

But these don’t take them off the streets during the day. And the more the Roma are helped, one argument goes, the more friends and relatives they will invite over to join them. ‘Yes, I know,’ a recent correspondent to the Swedish Metro wrote. ‘Poor people. Homeless, defenceless. Marginalised EU citizens. And still. I am so bloody sick and tired of the entire situation. Of this total pavement occupation in central Lund. Of the never-ending rattle sounds. Of sad faces, demanding faces, pleading faces, mechanical voices. “Pliiiiis mister! Pliiiiis madam!...” Cardboard signs with heartrending words (I shudder at all the misspellings)... And my thoughts are, the more people give, the more of them will arrive here.’

There is some convergence between the policies of the Sverige Demokraterna and those of the centre and left. Integration – the solution favoured for other immigrants – does not seem to be an option. Most Swedes see the problem as a Romanian and a European one. For years Sweden has been putting diplomatic pressure on Romania to change its ‘thousand-year old tradition of apartheid’ (in the words of Sven Hovmöller, a Social Democratic politician) against the two million Roma who live there. Last month the Romanian social affairs and labour minister, Rovana Plumb, was invited to Stockholm in an attempt to persuade her to end discrimination in her country, and find houses and jobs for the Roma there – with the help of EU funds. (Romania denies the discrimination.) That may entice them back; and perhaps restore Stockholm’s bright, tidy, egalitarian, guilt-free image.