They travel 3,000km just to beg

Every day, thousands flock to Drottninggatan, Stockholm's busiest shopping street, to scour the shops for the latest fashion trends.

For a growing group of Romanians, though, this street has become their playground to beg.

They sit, sometimes lie, by the side of the streets, drawing the attention of passers-by with the clinking of coins or the soft "hej, hej", a Swedish greeting.

They spread themselves out across the busy street, but there are so many of them that they are often no more than 5m apart.

Ever since the European Union (EU) opened its borders in 2007 to include Romania and Bulgaria, there has been an increase in Romanians crossing into Sweden to beg.

Most of them take a bus from Romania, a journey that takes 60 hours and costs them 80 euros (S$130) for a two-way ride. The distance between Bucharest in Romania and Stockholm in Sweden is almost 3,000km.

Reports in Swedish media said the number of beggars from Romania has doubled over the last year.

Mr Thomas Bjarke, manager of Crossroads, a collaborative effort between non-governmental organisations across Sweden that helps EU migrants, said: "The reason is quite simple. Sweden is a rich country, the currency is good and if they get Swedish krona in their cup, then it's a good income.

"They can always leave and return, refreshing the three months that they are allowed to stay as visitors, so no one really knows how long they have been in the country. There is a regulation to monitor movement but there is no enforcement."

Many of these beggars come from villages in Romania, where they hear from friends that they can earn much more than what they can ever hope for back home.

On good days, they can make up to 70 Swedish kronas (S$12) a day, but most of the time, their earnings hover around 30 to 40 kronas.

For them, sitting on the hard concrete, and in the biting cold for hours and for months, is nothing compared to the hardship they face in Romania.

BETTER

Ms Claudia Sbircea, 35, who started begging in Stockholm three years ago, said: "Of course it's better here.

"Back home, I'm poor, and I can't provide for my family. At least when I am sitting here in the subway, begging for money, I still can get a little to send back to my family."

Leaving their two daughters in the care of the rest of her family, she and her husband take turns travelling in and out of Sweden to beg to support the family.

Back in Romania, they are unemployed.

For Ms Andrea Grancea, 21, this is her first time trying her hand at begging in Stockholm after both her boyfriend and her mother tried it last year.

The young mother is pregnant with her third child. She has two girls aged four and six. "I miss accompanying my two babies to school and playing with them at home," she said.

"But I have no choice. I have to do this for a better life for them, and help pay for their school, food and medical fees."

Ms Grancea and her boyfriend live with other foreign beggars in a settlement outside the inner city.

These settlements last for about two to three months before they are discovered and have to move somewhere else. Shacks, tents and dilapidated caravans make up their makeshift homes. There is also no heating, electricity or running water. With winter approaching, this community will face harsh conditions living out in the cold.

Still, this temporary home is the closest thing Ms Grancea has to surviving this harsh winter, where temperatures can go as low as -10 deg C.

"We have to keep coming here for the sake of our children. I don't know when we can return to Romania and not have to come back here to beg again," she said. 

Locals helping beggars in the cold

Some Swedes are noticing the harsh conditions these Romanian beggars live in and are doing what they can to help.

In September, Stockholm University students Nilo Rahimi and Ninni Sundin turned to social media to raise necessities for these beggars.

The duo said that Swedes are more than willing to help out and donate - over 100 people donated items.

Donors also started giving cash and they raised about 3,500 Swedish kronas (S$613) within a month. This has allowed them to buy more specific items the beggars need, such as diapers, hygiene products and food.

"To me, it was intrinsic in my nature to help those who needed help. It's a very basic act and just a humane thing to do," said Miss Sundin.

Other initiatives include individuals stepping up to collect clothes, hygiene products and dried food to distribute to the beggars to prepare for the coming winter months.

Crossroads is one organisation that tries to help EU migrants, including the beggars, by offering advice on possible employment options.

Beggars often visit the establishment for free showers and meals.


This article was first published on December 24, 2014.
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