In these troubled economic times, both in the US and abroad, more and more individuals have taken to begging or panhandling. With the growing numbers of beggars in Europe, particularly among the Roma, or Europe’s “Gypsies,” Finland’s Ministry of the Interior working group proposed a controversial ban on beggars late last month, which would criminalize those who beg for money in Finland’s streets. The proposed ban comes on the heels of reports indicating that Helsinki’s panhandler population has tripled in the past two years due, in part, to the migration of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma to Finland via Norway.
Many international human rights advocates tout the begging ban as a step in the right direction towards curbing human trafficking and forced child-begging, which are inextricably linked to begging in Europe. For example, Europe’s GRETA – The Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, supports the ban, explaining that it would allow authorities to initiate investigations as to whether the beggars are working for themselves or victims of exploitation. Likewise, Finland’s Minister of the Interior, Anne Holmund, cited the link between begging and human trafficking when she recently spoke about Finland’s need for the proposed ban.
“Begging can involve issues such as the exploitation of children or characteristics linked with human trafficking when people are forced to beg. In such cases the matter is much more serious.”
However, not everyone agrees that the criminalization of begging is the proper tool for combating human rights abuses. Earlier this year, Romanian Ambassador to Finland, Lucian Fatu, told Finland’s largest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, that while begging is not acceptable, it is not a crime. Last week, Tuomas Ojanen, the University of Helsinki’s Professor of Constitutional Law explained that “[m]eans other than a prohibition on begging should be pursued to deal with the human rights issues related to the poverty of, and systematic discrimination against, Roma people.”
Finland is not the first country to attempt the criminalization of begging. Last year, Bangladesh, which is one of the world’s poorest countries and is, according to a COP15 report, the most vulnerable country to climate change, enacted a begging ban to combat Dhaka’s estimated 100,000 beggars, many of whom are “climate victims.” Last month, the city of Chennai, India also enacted a begging ban, which criminalizes begging but also provides rehabilitative services for those who violate the law.
Here in the United States, well-established legal precedence exists which upholds the constitutionality of begging as a First Amendment freedom. For example, in the 1990’s when New York City attempted to enforce a state statute that effectively banned begging, the Second Circuit of the US Court of Appeals ruled that begging is communicative activity conveying an individual’s indigency, which falls under the protection of the First Amendment. That is not to say, however, that all forms of begging are permitted in the United States as the courts clearly allow narrowly-tailored laws that prohibit aggressive panhandling; begging which intimidate or create a hostile environment for pedestrians, tourists, and business patrons. Though controversial, anti-panhandling legislation is passed frequently in the US, the lastest case of which comes from Seattle where just this spring, anti-panhandling legislation passed in a 5-4 vote, despite sharp criticism from the Seattle Human Rights Commission, the NAACP, the ACLU and Real Change News. Seattle’s new law makes aggressive panhandling a civil offense punishable by fine or community service and bans aggressive solicitation that involves intimidation.
While anti-begging legislation has seen mixed results in varying degrees, anti-begging campaigns, which do not criminalize begging, have seen success in their efforts to curb human trafficking and forced child labor. For example, the ”Begging Handicaps my Future” campaign, initiated in August 2008 by Terre des Hommes and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has helped over 400 children in Kosovo escape exploitation as child beggars. Artur Marku, Head of Mission of the Swiss organization in Kosovo, explained that child beggars do not benefit directly from the money they earn; rather “they give it to their parents or persons who organize the begging. The children come predominantly from the minority Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities.”
Honduras’ capital city of Tegucigalpa also led a successful campaign to rescue children and adolescents from street begging. The Honduran Institute of Childhood and Family, along with the police and the district attorneys locate groups of child beggars and relocate them with families or relatives who promise to uphold the child’s rights. Parents who force, rent out, or otherwise allow their children to beg are prosecuted. This system appears to be successful due to the fact that the beggars themselves, here minors, are not criminalized. Rather, those who exploit the work of the beggars are the ones who are punished under the law.
For more information about the linkage between begging and the human trafficking and abuse of children, I invite you to peruse the following report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), which was written this past spring. The reports documents the child-beggars in Senegal, known known as talibés, who are systematically forced to beg on Senegal’s streets.
“Off the Backs of the Children” - Forced Begging and Other Abuses against Talibés in Senegal
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