Sweden has experienced a surge in EU migrants – mostly from Romania and Bulgaria – begging on streets around the country, with one recent study suggesting the number has doubled to 4000 people over the past year.
But while Stockholm has traditionally been a hotspot for new arrivals, Stockholm City Council's Social Services department says there was a drop during the spring, with numbers only just starting to rise again.
“There was a fairly sharp decline in March and April and now the figure is back to roughly where it was before March,” project manager Veronica Wolgast Karlberg told The Local on Tuesday.
It is estimated that there are currently between 500 and 600 beggars in the Swedish capital, although no concrete statistics are available.
The Salvation Army (Frälsningsarmen), which assists vulnerable EU migrants, told Sveriges Radio this week that it had also noted a decrease in beggars seeking help in recent months.
It believes that several high-profile cases that saw rough sleepers evicted from some central parts of the capital earlier this year may have deterred others, while others may have selected other Swedish cities in the face of growing competition from other beggars.
“It may be because of the evictions carried out in the spring and that are still happening. We have also received reports that some travelled to Gothenburg, but we now see that it [numbers] have started to rise again in June,” said operations manager Carolina Nilsson.
But Wolgast Karlberg disagrees that beggars are being deterred by the experiences of other EU migrants.
“That could be part of it but I don't think it's the whole picture,” she told The Local.
“We saw the same kind of drop during the same period of time last year. Part of it is probably because of Easter. Some of them go home then and they also seem to go home around Christmas and New Year or at the end of August when school starts.”
She said that Stockholm City Council was expecting the number of beggars to grow, with several shelters set to remain open over the summer for the first time.
“Having the shelters open at this time of the year – that's new. There are 100 beds at three locations around the city, so we are not just assisting people during the winter,” she said.
Beggars in Stockholm in April 2014. Janerik Henriksson/TT
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Most of the beggars in Stockholm 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 passersby for money outside shops and underground stations.
Sweden's and Romania's governments have promised greater cooperation to tackle poverty within the Roma community, with the Nordic nation offering to share its knowledge of tackling welfare issues and to help Romania spend EU funding wisely to improve conditions for migrants back in their home country.
But how to tackle the continued begging on Sweden's streets in the meantime remains a deeply divisive political issue.
Last month, Sweden's Justice and Migration Minister Morgan Johansson revealed that the government was looking into a new law that would ban people from profiting from beggars, similar to current legislation designed to punish those who pimp out prostitutes.
But he rejected calls from leading opposition politicians for a more general begging ban that would prevent vulnerable citizens from asking for money on Sweden's streets and give municipalities greater rights to clear the camps where thousands of EU migrants are settling.
“Much more work needs to be done on a higher level,” Wolgast Karlberg told The Local.
“However Stockholm is developing a strategy – building on what we are doing now – and we expect to reveal that in the autumn…to make things clearer for people.”
Asked whether or residents and tourists should give money to beggars she said: “Everybody needs to decide for themselves what they want to do”.