Begging to get ahead. (L to r) Carmen, Raluca, Mihaela.

The issue of Romanian beggars in Helsinki and in cities around the country continues to make a fuss in the Finnish media, especially when the people in the streets have been tied to criminal activities. But a closer look into their world might give us an idea about who they are, where they come from and, most importantly, why they come to Finland.

With the arrival of summer and the rising of the temperatures, a new wave of beggars have flooded the streets of Helsinki, and their number is increasing daily. However, this phenomenon is not at all new in Finland. People in the streets are usually of Roma origin and come from different Eastern European countries, mostly Romania and Bulgaria, with the common aim of making a better life and earning money for their poor families back home.

The story behind the appearances

Roma are one of the largest minorities in Romania and face poverty, discrimination and many other social difficulties. Most of them decide to leave the country, with or without their families. They first try other popular destinations, such as Italy, Spain or Portugal, where the young hope for a job on a crop field working with strawberries or potatoes. However, most of the time, promises made in Romania are not kept abroad and many do not see any money at the end of the season. Legal complaints cannot be forwarded, since no legal contracts are signed either, thus many go back home empty-handed or look for a new opportunity. France and England are also on their list, but there is nothing else to do there other than begging or committing theft. In the Roma community, rumour had it a few years ago that Finland is a prosperous state and they can live better here and make money. So by word of mouth, more and more Roma heard about this opportunity and started coming here.

Those that come to Finland can either be found begging, selling flowers, playing music instruments or collecting cans and bottles, with very few actually searching for a long-term job. Complaining that the Finnish language is one of the barriers they can’t cross when it comes to work opportunities, this has led to increased instances of pickpocketing, shoplifting and burglary.

Certain areas around Helsinki have been strictly designated for different cultural groups. In the Kamppi area, most of the Roma that populate the square are Bulgarian or Finnish, with the Central Railway Station marked for Romanians. Indeed, in the centre of Helsinki, anyone can spot at a glance the men playing music or the women selling lilies of the valley on the street corners, forming an disorganised Romanian community.

“Today I only made 8 euros and I ate one tomato,” says Raluca while emptying her paper cup of a few coins. Originally from Gorj County, Raluca left her two young children behind in Romania, who are being taken care of by their father and grandmother. She sends them money every week, as well as using the money she receives here to buy food for herself. She came here with her sister, Carmen and their mother, Fulmena. They sleep in a car in parking lots, which they know is illegal. “Last night, police officers knocked on our windshield and woke us up in order to move,” Carmen says, shrugging her shoulders, “so we had to find another parking lot.”

While their mother spends her time solely with begging, Carmen sells flowers, just like her sister, and has been coming to Finland every summer, for six years now. “I’ve also been to Portugal, Spain; I learned a little English, a little Finnish. Now I want to go back to Portugal to work on a crop field because it’s better paid.” Carmen even gave birth to one of her babies in Helsinki, but now her two children are back at home.

This phenomenon of Romanian parents abandoning their offspring in search of work is very common in the rural areas of Romania. The Romanian government pays less than 50 euros per month for babies under two years old and 10 euros per month for older children. Figures from a recent report published by World Vision Romania found that 12 per cent of families live off this. While the Roma from Bulgaria come to Finland with their whole families, including little children, those from Romania have already heard about the strict rules of the child protection associations in Finland and prefer to leave them behind and send them money instead.

A common reason given for them being here is nevertheless the poor life conditions in Romania and the lack of available jobs there. They all know it is difficult to go abroad to beg or work, but they just hope for something better. Not all of them succeed however.

“I would never come back to Finland,” states one of two men preparing to head back to Tallinn. Having made a mere 2-3 euros per day since arriving here one month ago, Helsinki has not proven to be fertile ground. “Bulgarians get all the bottles and cans,” he complains while hurrying not to miss his boat.

“I am not leaving,” interrupts an old man with an accordion. Happy to be earning between 30 and 50 euros per day from playing his instrument, he states that it is easier to make money out of music than begging or collecting cans. He comes from Bacau and talks with pride about his daughter who moved to Italy six years ago and works on a good salary. He starts playing a traditional Romanian song on his accordion.

(l to r) Ralitsa Dimitrova, Marjatta Vesalainen &  Pekka Tuomola at Hirundo Day Center

A hand from the generous

While some of them admit the necessity of pickpocketing and shoplifting for personal use, others would be happy to find a legitimate job and earn some money. “I would clean the streets from dawn to dusk if they gave me this job,” says Mihaela, originally from Valcea County. She starts complaining of the way people treat them when a passer-by kicks her paper cup with coins. “Some swear at us and call us names. They even spit at us sometimes. But there are also persons who help us with food, clothes or money.”

Romanians complain about the labels that have been placed on them as a whole, due to a number of them committing crimes against locals or tourists. This gives them a hard time in Helsinki, but they are most grateful to “Mrs. Marieta”, who “helps them and provides them a space where they wash up, do the laundry, have a coffee or use the computer to search for jobs on the internet.” This place is the Hirundo Day Centre for Migrants and Travellers, near the Sörnäinen metro station and is administered by the Helsinki Deaconess Institute and the City of Helsinki.

“Mrs. Marieta” is in fact Marjatta Vesalainen, expert in Roma and Migration Affairs, who lived in Romania during the communist regime for seven years, working in tourism. Opening in May 2011 more than 11,000 Roma from Romania and Bulgaria visited this place last year.

“I heard on the radio that they were looking for a Romanian social assistant that speaks Finnish to work with people of Roma origin and I called and asked them, ‘What if I am Finnish and I can speak Romanian?’ So here I am,” Vesalainen explains. Possessing excellent Romanian language skills, Vesalainen is the focal point for people to come and tell their problems and ask for help. “We advise them about finding jobs. There have been beggars coming to Finland for four years now, but some of them are serious and look for work opportunities, others buy and sell second-hand cars. We don’t encourage them in this business.”

Vesalainen is at the Hirundo Centre every day. Everyone is welcome here, but a daily separate schedule has been organised for Romanians and Bulgarians, as only 60-70 people can use the space at the same time. One can find here not only the people begging on the streets, but also Romanians who are in Finland for other purposes. Among them are some who admit pickpocketing and shoplifting in order to “survive”.

“Those of us who look well-dressed are actually involved in stealing,” one of them confesses. “How else would we make money?” Some share successful experiences – and these are only a few – and brag about finding a job, a car and overall a good life in Helsinki. One has been recently hired by an Estonian construction company. “I just have to organise my documents and that’s all,” he says and turns around to ask Vesalainen about the red tape of Finnish bureaucracy.

musicians earn more than others.

Ongoing investigation of the authorities

Acutely aware of the high importance of the phenomenon in the city, Helsinki Police continue investigating this influx of Roma, with their statistics revealing that 20 per cent of crimes committed in the capital city every year are attributed to foreign people. The number of offenses that Romanians commit abroad has increased considerably after 2007, when Romania joined the European Union and their citizens were allowed to travel freely between borders. “There are around two or three hundred Romanians at the moment in Helsinki and we suspect that there is an organisation that coordinates them here,” states Chief Inspector Juha Laaksonen from the Daily Crimes Unit. “They don’t come randomly.”

Meanwhile, Romanian authorities support the actions taken by Finnish Police as far as the Romanian beggars are concerned. At the beginning of June, a Romanian police officer arrived in Finland after ministerial agreement to co-operate in this matter. “He does not have an active role; he is here to support the investigation for the next three months in order to prevent future crimes and to help us create a better picture of the Romanians in Finland,” states Chief Inspector Kari Niinimäki.

As far as the recent proposal for the banning of begging in Finland, both Police representatives believe that it won’t succeed “We had the same proposal last year and they didn’t pass the legislation on the basis that being poor is not illegal,” Niinimäki concludes.

Text and photos Alexandra Badita