|Elena Stanescu and Mariana Ion, begging in central Stockholm. Last month, someone threw gasoline on them. Mariana, set ablaze, had to run to a fountain. Credit Moa Karlberg for The New York Times.|
“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, Mr. Rancu managed to avoid any scarring. But the assault, for which there is currently no suspect, has left a different kind of mark.
“When I come to this park I am shaking,” said Mr. Rancu, who looks older than his 27 years, and who says he wants to return to Romania as soon as he has some money.
|A camp in Hogdalen, outside Stockholm. About 50 Roma people live here.|
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 28-nation 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 flash point in the conflict over the limits of European openness and 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 organization 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 the European Union’s statistics office, Eurostat, Romania has one of the lowest wealth levels in the entire bloc of countries.
In Sweden, the issue has helped fuel the rise of a right-wing, populist, anti-immigration party, the Sweden Democrats, which won 13 percent of the vote in last year’s national elections. There have been similar political reactions in Denmark, France and Britain. In the latter case, concerns about an influx of workers from Southern and Eastern Europe featured prominently in a debate over whether Britain should quit the European Union.
“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 criminalize it — at least in what the party calls its “organized” form. The police here say there 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 have increased, and opinion among Swedes is polarized 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 organization set up by the 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.
“Beggars were something that you see abroad, something that you see in poor countries — we are not a poor country,” she said.
But there is now a pocket of startling poverty in the hills at Hogdalen, just a 20-minute Metro ride from the center of Stockholm, one of Europe’s most affluent capitals. Here a group of 50 to 60 Roma live in makeshift tents and huts that offer no water, electricity or sanitation, in a clearing in the fir trees. On a recent evening, clothes flapped from lines as women grilled meat on open fires made from chopped-up pallets.
The men and women here said they generally stay for months, making money from begging and collecting empty bottles that can be redeemed for small coins, before returning to Romania.
In this makeshift camp, beggars face a constant battle against evictions that force them to move — often just a short distance.
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 assume such crime is underreported.
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 coordinator, Martin Valfridsson, for vulnerable European Union citizens.
He describes hate crimes against the Roma as “evil.”
He said that in recent months, Sweden had struck an agreement with Romania’s government to encourage cooperation between the countries’ health and social workers. Mr. Valfridsson favors legal changes to help prosecute migrants who control begging sites and demand a portion of the proceeds.
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.”
Those who do not have work cannot be given complete health care rights, he said, because Sweden cannot afford to extend this to all 500 million European Union citizens. “The solution must be found in their countries,” Mr. Valfridsson added.
In the meantime, beggars who stay in Sweden often face a choice between sleeping in cities, where they risk being attacked or harassed, or camping in settlements, where they face eviction.
Josh Levy, a graduate student at Stockholm University who has been studying the HEM group’s work with the Roma people, argues that the authorities’ reaction is simply to try “to move the problem somewhere else.”
And, although begging is now a hot political topic, critics complain that there is as yet no coherent strategy to deal with it.
“The response has not been convincing from Sweden’s political leaders,” said Mr. Johansson Heino, of the Timbro institute, “they have been hoping the problem will go away by itself — and it won’t.”