For a bright-eyed Singaporean who has heard wonders about the welfare system in Finland – and having seen the maternity package, and visited an elementary school – spotting a beggar along the streets of Helsinki was peculiar. Stigmas are attached to beggars and the act of begging, and in Singapore the Destitute Persons Act provides care and rehabilitation for persons found begging in public. Throughout the Finnish winter, even at sub-zero temperatures, the thickly-dressed beggar would be huddled in a corner: at the local train stop, outside the central railway station, and along the shopping district on my way to school.
Yet as it turns out the Finns have paid close attention to the phenomenon. In 2007 the Helsingin Sanomat, the largest subscription newspaper in Finland, interviewed beggars along the main streets of Helsinki. Many of them were East Europeans, driven out of their homes by conflict and abject poverty. In 2011 the newspaper focused on the Romanian beggars in the city. Finland’s national public-broadcasting company YLE also reported in 2012 that “street beggars from Romania and Bulgaria have remained in Finland for the winter”.
The situation is not unique to Finland. Across the major cities of Europe some have rallied against what they perceive to be aggressive begging, and hence called for harsher laws.
On a few occasions I have tried to strike up conversations with a beggar after I had dropped a one or two euro coin, but the language barrier meant we rarely went beyond the pleasantries. The stories – if some of the cardboard signs in Finnish, Swedish, and English are anything to go by – are similar: the need to support a large family back home without steady income, to pay for hefty medical bills, or to get enough money for food, transportation, and shelter. Photographs of young children and families often accompany these signs. The beggar sits or kneels gingerly on cardboards, clutching onto his or her plastic cups.
Most of the time I get nothing more than a nod. And a gesture to leave if I attempt to probe.
What is more important is the national discourse which surrounds the beggars. Last year some politicians – concerned that the individual might have been coerced into the act by traffickers and criminals – called for a begging prohibition modelled after Danish legislation, through which a foreign beggar can be banned from entering the country for five years, while others spurn what they deem to be a discriminatory proposal. A university professor of constitutional law argued that other means “should be pursued to deal with the human rights issues related to the poverty of, and systematic discrimination against, Roma people”.
There is a story behind every beggar, and while criminalisation and prohibition appear to be obvious solutions legal recourses could achieve little. Pekka Tuomola of Helsinki’s Deaconess Institute, a social enterprise group, has worked with beggars and mobile populations, frames the status quo best when he posits that “poverty cannot be banned by law, [because] nobody goes begging in the streets if there isn’t [an] extreme need [to]”.
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