One of Europe's Wealthiest Nations Wants to Throw Beggars in Jail

Oil-rich Norway wants to fine people who ask for money and imprison them for up to three months.

A begger asks for money in central Oslo on February 25, 2007, in Norway. (Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at GOOD.

Norway is on track to approve a new strategy for addressing the problem of poor people who beg for money. Nope, the wealthy Nordic nation isn’t planning to provide housing for the indigent or job training. Instead, if a bill working its way through the Norwegian parliament passes, people who ask for spare change would be fined and imprisoned for up to three months.

“In the past few years, we have seen an increase in beggars in many cities and towns in Norway and we have a deep concern for the association between the flow of beggars from outside Norway and organized criminality,” Himanshu Gulati, state secretary at the justice ministry, told the Financial Times. Officials at the ministry say they have found a link between beggars and incidents of pickpocketing.

The legislation sounds like a modern-day Dickensian plot. However, the government has the support of the public. More than 60 percent of Norwegians agree that begging should be a crime, according to the Times.

The nation of 5 million has been one of the richest in Europe since oil was discovered in the North Sea along its borders in the 1960s. A recent study from Norway’s NOVA social research institute found the country only has about 1,000 beggars, reports the Times. But they’re nearly all Roma immigrants from Romania. That has led progressive activists to complain that the proposed legislation is really about ethnic prejudice.

"How can you believe that in 200 years' time this will not be seen as an attempt to stop Roma entering the kingdom?" Socialist Left Party leader Bård Vegar Solhjell told The Local.

Echoes of Norway’s proposed legislation have popped up in other European nations as Roma immigrants have moved in. In 2003, concerns that the ethnic group’s gangs were criminally targeting U.K. citizens through begging made the practice a recordable offense. That change allowed law enforcement to track aggressive beggars who were connected to crime. In 2011, Europol reported that Roma gangs were trafficking children and forcing them to beg on the streets of other EU nations.

But Norwegian activist Arild Knutsen believes simply arresting the beggars will make the situation for poor people in the country even worse. "If they can no longer (beg), they will be obliged to turn even more to crime," The Local quotes Knutsen as saying.

Although Norway’s king could sign the legislation into law on Friday, the head of the Norwegian Bar Association, Frode Sulland, believes the ban violates human rights rules. “You can go to almost any city in Europe and there will be a bigger problem with beggars than there is in Oslo,” Sulland told the Times. “We think there is a right for everybody to ask everybody else for help. This is an activity that in itself doesn’t harm anybody.”

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