Debate flies over aid for beggars

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Last week police and city officials were actively breaking up illegal and unsanitary camps set up in downtown Oslo by mostly Romanian beggars who have arrived in the Norwegian capital. That set off criticism from church officials and some politicians who think the beggars instead need sympathy and help. And that has set off loud debate on both ends of the political spectrum.

Reports that the makeshift camps were being destroyed after their occupants were awoken before 6am struck a chord with Oslo’s more liberal and humanitarian-minded leaders. Now the city’s mayoral candidate from the Socialist Left party (SV), Marianne Borgen, is following up on proposals from church welfare group Kirkens Bymisjon that the city should provide both toilets and showers for the beggars who lack a place to live.

‘Narrow-minded’
“It’s way too narrow-minded to simply operate social garbage collection here,” Borgen told newspaper Aften. “These people won’t disappear simply by chasing them from place to place. We must recognize that they are in Oslo, and that they should have a minimum of human dignity when they are here.”

Borgen thinks everyone should have the right to use a toilet and take a shower. The biggest problem around the makeshift camps is that their occupants have been using nearby bushes and the sides of buildings as their toilets, creating what authorities view as a health hazard. Borgen agrees that the beggars’ activities are unacceptable but insists Norwegians should have sympathy for their situation.

“We must have a humanitarian perspective on this, which is an expression of the poverty in Romania,” Borgen said. “So I support Kirkens Bymisjon on this.”

Could attract more beggars to Norway
Borgen’s views were firmly rejected by the head of Oslo’s city government, Stian Berger Røsland of the Conservative Party. “It’s almost hard to find words for the consequences this (provision of toilets and showers) would have on the city,” Røsland said. “The rumours would spread all over Europe that the city of Oslo provides for beggars. The proposal is surely well-meant, but it illustrates that well-meaning politicians on the left shouldn’t be too much in charge.

“Norway is the wealthiest country in the world and we have a large responsibility to continue to social improvement in Europe,” he added, “but the social problems in Europe can’t be solved with a cup in Karl Johans Gate.”

Debate over the shower and toilet proposal has flourished on local websites, with commentators almost evenly split on newspaper Aftenposten’s site. One wrote that the Romanian beggars deserve as much respect and humanity as all other persons, and “if they steal, it’s only because they’re poor.” Others called for “stopping them at the border” (impossible under current EU travel and immigration rules) and called the shower and toilet proposal “the dumbest” they’ve heard.”

One commentator equated it to a recent story in A-magasinet that quoted a convicted Romanian welfare cheat as saying that Norway was “the dumbest country in the world.” She had managed to obtain millions in state welfare payments over many years by claiming she was the grandmother to several children who didn’t exist.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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