Arendal, Norway – Residents here know Margel Nikoleta as the last beggar in town. On a recent weekday, she set up camp on Arendal’s main square to ask passersby for money. Some greeted her warmly and dropped a few coins in her paper cup.
Today, the way Nikoleta supports herself is illegal. This week, Arendal’s municipality became one of the first in Norway to introduce a modern-day ban on begging.
In the past six years, the number of ethnic Roma migrants in the country has increased tenfold. Citizens and politicians alike have bemoaned their presence on street corners and outside of shops. The government has granted councils the authority to instate local bans, and wants to introduce a nationwide ban by next summer.
Arendal’s course of action puzzles Nikoleta. Her ordinary begging spot is just outside the local city hall, where employees have covered her medical expenses in the past, but whose politicians have voted to criminalise the way she supports her family.
“They like me,” she told Al Jazeera before the ban came into force. “I’ll get to stay, won’t I?”
|Tore Oland of the Conservative Party [Sven Carlsson/Al Jazeera]
Begging and crime
Around the corner, a politician who voted for the ban smokes a cigar in the mild autumn sun.
Tore Oland, of the local Conservative Party, said the ban will spell the end of begging in Arendal, a town of some 40,000 residents whose streets are deserted by the late afternoon, and where few shops stay open past 5pm.
“She is the only beggar left in town,” he said, walking past Nikoleta towards City Hall.
Politicians such as Oland say begging goes hand-in-hand with crime. Local police did arrest three people with affiliations to beggars for selling drugs last year, but since then, local officer Jan Sverre Krogstad told Al Jazeera: “Begging has not been a problem.”
“The beggars live in poor conditions. They’ve stayed in service areas outside of town but haven’t kept them up to standard,” said Anders Kylland of Arendal’s Progress Party. He disagreed with the common view that begging bans target Norway’s Roma population. “It’s not the people who perform the begging who are unwanted. It’s the act of begging that the council has forbidden.”
Research shows that most migrant beggars support only themselves and their families and are not part of the larger, organised begging rings denounced by politicians. These have rarely been proven to exist, aside from minivans that charge money to take migrants between Romania and Norway.
Yet activists are convinced that the wording of the proposal – which bans begging for money to spend on “themselves, their kin or on a smaller group of people” – is unequivocal.
“The debate has been marked by spiteful rhetoric based on many stereotypes of who these people are,” said Sunniva Orstavik, Norway’s discrimination ombudsman and one of the harshest critics of the ban. She said the language used in the debate and police enforcement show that the ban targets Norway’s migrant Roma – a group that numbers about 1,000, though the total varies by season.
Roma have long been stigmatised in the country. Between 1900 and 1970, about 1,500 children of Roma travellers were placed in foster homes. Women on the outskirts of society were sterilised by force. The group was especially exposed under the country’s former begging ban, the vagrant law of 1900, introduced when Norway was one of the poorest countries in Europe. It was rescinded in 2005 after a long period of lax enforcement.
Today, Norwegian households are among the richest in the world. Although jobless levels rose last year, the country’s unemployment rate is still the lowest in Europe. Accordingly, some say Norway’s 21st-century begging ban comes at an odd time.
“We’re doing well in Norway. Very well. Too well,” Alfred Frevert, a 52-year-old volunteer, told Al Jazeera as he was making some of the 50 shelter beds offered by the Church City Mission in Oslo to poor migrants. “The ban is completely crazy. Our borders are open, which means we have to take responsibility. Why don’t we close them then?”
They want to change the streetscape, the outer part of the city. But if the outside has to be that pretty, the inside will get ugly instead.
Because of Norway’s inclusion in the European Economic Area, visitors to Norway – poor, beggar migrants among them – are allowed to stay in the country for three months but are not entitled to benefits payments. But poor migrants can seek help from places like the Church City Mission.
‘I hope it’s not true’
At 10pm on a recent weeknight, a 49-year-old guest clad in several layers of clothing and a black-and-orange headscarf enters one of its shelters. “Buona sera,” she greats the staff, neatly placing 15 Norwegian krone ($2.20) on the table to pay for her bed.
For a quarter of her day’s earnings, a folding bed will be hers until 7:30am. By then, most of the guests will have left to claim their designated begging spot before the morning rush hour.
“I’ve heard about them making begging illegal, but I hope it’s not true,” the woman says. Loud chatter fills the room before lights go out at 11pm. A scarf, pants, undershirts and a sweater have been hung to dry in the chancel at the front of the church. A note stand holds a printed sermon written in English and Romani.
The shelter fills up regularly and sometimes has to turn people away. Yet the future of its services hangs in the balance.
Norway’s Finance Minister Siv Jensen is the leader of the anti-immigration Progress Party. She once suggested that foreign beggars be bussed to the border.
The government has also cut funding for emergency shelters in its 2015 budget. “I’m not sure what they plan to do about Norwegian drug addicts and homeless people,” Morten Skattet, a project manager at the City Mission’s shelter in Oslo, told Al Jazeera.
Local parks will not be an option should the shelters close. Last year, the Oslo city council banned sleeping outdoors, in a move critics said belonged to the same set of policies as the begging ban.
“They want to change the streetscape, the outer part of the city,” Rune Berglund Steen, who heads the Norwegian Centre Against Racism, told Al Jazeera. “But if the outside has to be that pretty, the inside will get ugly instead.”