Vol 2, No 12
27 March 2000
M I O R I Ţ A:
"Excuse me. I know you have heard this before, I know I have asked you before. I am sure you travel here every day and see me and I am sorry to ask but could you spare any change. I need five pounds to get into a hostel for the night....sir, madam?" This man is a regular on the London Underground. He is polite but his droning, monotonous voice indicates someone who is in the depths of depression. He is English. Do you help or do you stare into space with a glazed expression as if he is unheard and invisible?
In Bucharest, a Romanian boy of fifteen steps into the metro carriage at Gara de Nord. He is wearing nothing but an old jumper tied about him in a nappy-like fashion. "Please help me! My mother and father are dead. I am alone in Romania, I have no relatives, I have nowhere to go, I have nowhere to live, I have nowhere to work, I have no money, I have no food. Please give me some money to buy some food?" Do you help or do you stare harshly at him in disapproval?
What is the difference between these two real life scenario's? Nothing. A similar response, a similar attitude. The only difference is the location. One is set in affluent Britain where things like this 'don't happen.' The other is set in backward and poverty-ridden Romania - where is that again?
What happens when Romanians are found begging in London? Do we stare into space with a glazed expression? No, we want to imprison them.
Over the past ten years the number of asylum seekers from Eastern Europe has increased. Conflicts in Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and Kosova have raised the number of refugees seeking protection from persecution in their homeland. Also, a large proportion of Roma from countries such as Romania and the former Czechoslovakia have sought asylum in Britain as policies to appease minorities are directed at everyone but themselves.
Many of the Romanians can be found begging on the street, the underground and even at your door. It is normally a women, clutching a baby to her breast - a sympathy vote. They often move in groups with the men somewhere in the background. They are intimidating but as you walk past ignoring their pleas for money there is a pang of guilt - what if they do need help?
Public hostility towards beggars is mounting, a view which has been taken up in parliament and in the courts. Anne Widecombe wants them locked up "before they get a chance to go on to the streets to beg" (Guardian, Friday 10 march 2000) Roger Davies, a stipendiary magistrate from central London threatened to jail women who beg with their babies, failing to acknowledge the law that begging is not an offence unless money is demanded with menace. Attitudes are moving towards the extreme with racist undertones that undermine the principles of human rights and freedoms.
Ignorance appears to be the prevailing attitude. Romanian beggars, and others alike, are considered a pest, something to be locked away behind a closed door. So why do they come here and what do they receive?
The majority of Romanian asylum seekers are Roma escaping persecution. Under the United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol, the United Kingdom is obliged to receive and formally recognise those fleeing persecution. When an asylum seeker arrives in Britain they have to verbally declare to an immigration officer at the port of entry that they are seeking asylum. They are given five days to gather evidence to substantiate their claim. If the immigration officials accept the evidence, the asylum seekers are fingerprinted, given an address and documentation confirming their application. Asylum seekers do not receive the full range of benefits but local authorities are obliged to accommodate the destitute. A dispersal programme is due to come into effect on 1 April 2000 which should help to spread the costs of asylum seekers across the country. The application process is slow and can take up to eighteen months.
Asylum seekers are not allowed to work. From 1 April 2000 they will lose the right to any benefits. Instead, they will receive vouchers 30 per cent below the already unrealistic subsistence level. Begging is often the only means for survival.
Admittedly, there are those who abuse the system. The Nistor Family entered Britain from Romania in the back of a lorry in 1998. They applied for asylum as persecuted gypsies. They are waiting for a decision on their case. Meanwhile, they live in a council house, receive benefits, the men work illegally on a construction site and the mother begs regularly with her four year old son on the London Underground. Also, organised gangs of 'professional beggars' are reported to be roaming the streets of London. Well-dressed men collecting the revenue from groups of female beggars have been sighted. However, these cases are few. Many more remain hidden, seeking asylum through the correct channels and with legitimate cause for concern. These people are bandied in with those who blatantly flout the system.
Begging has been a problem in London for centuries. It is not exclusively the domain of asylum seekers. The recent media hype and public response has exaggerated the problem, concentrating on Romanian Roma as the difficulty. However, the Romanian families are not the only section of society who beg with children. A regular haunt of a British family, two female adults and a varying selection of children, is Russell Square from where many people make their way to the British Museum. It seems, these people are not the main concern.
In Romania some Roma families have made a living from begging. Women are seen traversing the streets with their children asking for money from complete strangers. Despite Romanian negativity towards them, it has become a way of life for some Roma and is associated directly with the group as a whole. It is becoming an aspect of their identity as others perceive them. Those Romanian Roma who have felt pressured to leave and seek asylum in countries such as Britain have merely continued their trade. No matter how disapproving we may be, begging is not illegal. What is cause for anger is the manner in which some of the Romanians have attracted sympathy. Pertaining to be from Kosova, they raise their child and point to it in desperation forcing sympathy and consequently, a donation.
Romanians and Britains alike, have responded with a similar attitude to the 'problem of the begging Roma.' They take our money, pollute our streets, hound us. They are offensive. This attitude is set in the 1800s and not an attitude for the twenty-first century. Europe is uniting under the European Union where freedom of mobility is a necessity. Romania is in the process of accession to the EU but their treatment of their Roma minority could be debilitating. British reaction to the Romanian Roma has erred towards imprisonment. Is this how we should treat our future partners? Some Roma have abused the British and Romanian systems but to associate all with the actions of a few would be a mistake. To a large extent the systems themselves are failing, encouraging people to beg as the only alternative to extreme poverty. Begging is not exclusive to the Roma both in Romania and Britain, but the attitude still prevails: 'Să fie atenţi, mulţi ţigani!' (Be aware, lots of gypsies!)
Catherine Lovatt, 27 March 2000
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