Commuters travelling via the underground station Östermalmstorg in central Stockholm on Monday were met with huge signs in English apologizing for begging in the capital in a campaign launched by the nationalist Sweden Democrat party.
Sweden has experienced a surge in EU migrants – mostly from Romania and Bulgaria – begging on streets around the country, with one study suggesting they have doubled to 4,000 people over the past year, although recent figures suggested the number has declined in the capital.
“Sorry about the mess here in Sweden. We have a serious problem with forced begging! International gangs profit from people's desperation. Our goverment [sic] won't do what's needed,” read Sweden Democrat messages on billboards above the escalators on Monday.
“It is written in English and explains the situation to tourists. Many get surprised and concerned when they come here, especially if they visited Sweden maybe 20 years ago and have come back again,” Sweden Democrat press officer Henrik Vinge told The Local.
“I don't think it's gone so far that people are avoiding Sweden yet. But I know that it is a concern. Of course people outside of Sweden are noticing the rise in organized begging, everyone who has foreign friends hear these things,” he added.
READ ALSO: Begging 'not run' by organized crime groups
But the controversial campaign was met with a wave of criticism on social media on Monday, with several Twitter users sharing a photoshopped version of the billboards, instead apologizing to tourists for the “racist problem” in Sweden.
Fixade SDs annons – vem hos SL ska ha mitt nya original? pic.twitter.com/pKkyisVrM0
— Bravefart (@pinsamtystnad) August 3, 2015
Many also hit out at SL, which runs all public transport in Stockholm county, for permitting the advertizing campaign which some described as “racist”. But the firm said it was unable to act on complaints.
“If the message is within the scope of the law we have no possibilities of stopping it,” SL press spokesman Jesper Pettersson told Swedish newswire TT.
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.
But how to tackle the continued begging on Sweden's street remains a deeply divisive political issue. A ban on organized begging is being considered by the Social Democrat-Green government, stopping short of a blanket ban on begging that would prevent vulnerable citizens from asking for money on Sweden's streets.
Monday's campaign in the Stockholm underground. Photo: Bertil Ericsson/TT
Meanwhile, the chief executive of Stockholm Visitors Board, the organization in charge of marketing the capital to the rest of the world as part of Stockholm Business Region, which for full disclosure advertises with The Local, said that the Sweden Democrat campaign risked harming Sweden's reputation abroad.
“I think tourists are a strange audience to target, a group that's unable to vote in Sweden. It's a shame, because we want to create a positive image of Sweden. I think it's sad. This is a question for Swedish domestic politics. It feels strange to raise it in a way that risks creating a worse image of Stockholm and Sweden,” Thomas Andersson told The Local on Monday.
He added that tourism was booming in the capital and that he and his colleagues had not received more complaints than usual from foreign visitors.
“I can't say for sure if it's going to be a record summer yet, but it has been a very good season with tourists flowing into Stockholm. EU migrants have not discouraged tourism which continues to increase. This campaign does not appear to be rooted in reality.”
The Sweden Democrats scored a record number of votes in Sweden's last municipal, local and national elections in 2014 when they became the third largest political party in the country.