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Ban on aiding beggars stopped after global fury

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Ban on aiding beggars stopped after global fury
A beggar in Norway's capital Oslo this week. Photo: Erland Aas/TT/Scanpix
16:25 CET+01:00
UPDATED: After Swedish and global criticism of Norway's plans for law designed to punish people who give money to homeless people, the country's opposition Centre Party decided not to back the proposal, meaning it will unlikely get passed over the border.
Anyone helping homeless people by offering them travel money, shelter or food could face up to a year in prison according to the draft of the new anti-begging law put out for consultation over the border in Norway this week.
 
But while Sweden is closely monitoring the policies of its Scandinavian neighbours, which are all experiencing an influx of beggars from Romania and Bulgaria, politicians and campaign groups were quick to declare that they would not support a similar strategy on home soil.
 
Martin Valfridsson, Sweden's debut national coordinator for vulnerable EU citizens, who started in the freshly-created post on Monday told The Local:
 
"My immediate response is that I don't see this as the solution for Sweden - turning offering or asking for help into a criminal act. Norway is trying to criminalise poverty. That won't be the outcome of my work in Sweden."
 
Strong opposition to the idea was also voiced by Situation Stockholm, the magazine sold by homeless people in Sweden's capital.
 
"Our opinion is that when you ask another person for money or choose to give it, it is not up to the government to regulate that. It should be about how an individual feels when they meet another person," Editor-in-Chief Ulf Stolt told The Local on Wednesday.
 
International media were also scathing about the proposed law, with papers including the UK’s Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Independent reporting fears that ordinary people risked prison sentences for helping beggars, while contrasting Norway's prosperity with its tough stance towards the homeless. 
 
“Anyone offering a homeless person a cup of coffee or a sandwich on the streets in Norway could soon risk six months to a year in prison under a proposed new law,” the Daily Telegraph wrote on Wednesday. 
 
Vidar Brien-Karlsen, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice in Norway and member of the country's right-wing Progress Party told Norwegian broadcaster NRK that it was necessary to criminalise those aiding beggars, as the police needed authority to crack down on those running begging networks as an organised business. 
 
“That’s because part of what we want to get rid of is actively organised. We need to give the police the legal authority to crack down on people who arrange for beggars to get here, often in large groups”. 
 
But on Thursday it emerged that the country's Centre Party had changed its mind about backing the proposal, meaning it is now unlikely to get enough votes in parliament to become law.
 
"It cannot be a crime to give people clothing, food and shelter," Marit Arnstad from the party told Swedish broadcaster SVT.
 
 
There were fears that a change of law in Norway could encourage rising numbers of homeless people to choose to head over the border to Sweden, where thousands of beggars have already arrived over the past two years.
 
Most of them are members of the Roma community - one of the EU's largest minority groups - and arrive as EU tourists under the right to Freedom of Movement. Many live in tents or caravans and make a living by asking Swedes for money outside shops and underground stations.
 
Martin Valfridsson would not be drawn on whether he anticipated a further spike in migration as a result of any potential new law in Norway, stressing instead that Sweden's long term vision was to cut the number of beggars moving to the capital as well as a growing number of other Swedish cities.
 
"Beggars cannot uphold the same level of welfare as those who are resident in Sweden, but we should seek to use the resources we have here in the most efficient want to help them as much as possible," he told The Local.
 
Vilfridsson says he is planning to spend the next few weeks meeting municipalities and charities around the country as part of his efforts to better coordinate cooperation between the different groups that are currently providing aid and assistance to poor EU migrants.
 
"I will also travel to Romania and Bulgaria to see if I can improve coordination between Sweden and charities and organisations there. Most of the beggars do not want to be in Sweden, they want to be reunited with their families. In the long run sitting and begging on the street is not the solution."
 
Last month talks took place between Sweden's Minister for Social Security Annika Strandhäll, the Minister for Children, the Elderly and Gender Equality, Åsa Regnér, and Rovana Plumb, who is Minister for Labour, Family, Social Protection and Elderly in Romania.
 
The trio agreed on a joint statement to be signed at an EU summit on March 9th.
 
"We will create a framework for how we will share experiences on successful measures," said Plumb.
 
"Local authorities in Romania and Sweden will cooperate and we will prepare projects to achieve common goals for employment and social welfare in both our countries," she added.
 
Sweden's largest opposition party, the Moderates, were unable to provide a statement on Norway's proposal to criminalise helping beggars by Thursday morning, but a press spokesperson told The Local that the strategy appeared to be "something that goes against our principles".
 
The anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, which secured 13 percent of the vote in the country's last general election in September 2014, were not available for comment.
 
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