The Swiss capital Bern has become a magnet for organised begging, with beggars being drafted in from eastern Europe to work the streets, city police have warned.
The authorities say that disabled people and children, who attract more sympathy, are being used by gangs to earn money – in some cases up to SFr500 ($468) each per day.
In response, they have launched a pilot programme, named Agora, to crack down on the organised gangs targeting the city.
"Hundreds of people are involved," Bern aliens police chief Alexander Ott told swissinfo.ch.
"The organised begging bands from eastern Europe are usually made up of ten to 18 people, working in rotation. Invalids and children are shared out in the different bands."
Ott has appealed to the population not to give money to beggars.
"Whoever gives money is not helping the beggars but financing the gangs behind them," he said.
Begging in Bern is not illegal but foreigners are required to have the means to support themselves when they enter the country, which means they can be fined for begging. Other Swiss cities, such as Zurich and Basel ban begging outright.
The groups come mainly from Romania and Bulgaria. With assistance from the Romanian authorities and Bern city authorities, Ott is leading the Agora project in which police are attempting to track the movements of the beggars and find the men running the network.
"We haven't made any arrests or fined anyone so far. Our focus is to find the people engineering this. The real bosses are not yet visible but we will see them soon," Ott said.
He said 90 people had been questioned since the end of April.
Since the free movement of people agreement with Switzerland came into force on June 1, 2009, Romanian and Bulgarian citizens, like other EU citizens, are able to travel to and work in Switzerland.
The Romanian embassy in Bern told swissinfo.ch that Bucharest would like all Romanian citizens coming to Switzerland to be informed about their rights and obligations under the free movement of people accord.
"From the information we have received, it seems that some of the Romanian beggars in Bern and other Swiss cities could be of Roma descent," it added.
"The Roma, who left Romania ten to 15 years ago, live according to their own cultural lifestyle and travel all over the European continent."
Police say there are two different methods at work with the groups who mainly come from Romania and Bulgaria – freelance and controlled.
Under the freelance system, people pay a fee for a day trip organised by middlemen. The organisers transport the would-be beggars to a city, provide them with a map of the best begging locations and arrange to collect them at the end of the day. In principle, once the fee is paid these day-trippers can keep the proceeds of their efforts.
The second method involves much tighter control of the individuals doing the begging, with "runners" making continuous collections of the proceeds. The beggars are used on a daily basis for weeks or months.
Beggars accompanied by children and maimed or disabled beggars are the most lucrative for the gang bosses, Ott explains.
"When the beggars have collected some money, "runners" collect their takings and go directly to a bank or post office to change it into notes." It all happens very quickly and the network is currently under surveillance to find the people pulling the strings.
Ott believes these beggars are in a very vulnerable position. "A relationship based on dependence and exploitation is always subject to physical and psychological violence."
Citizens of European Union states - including new members Romania and Bulgaria - have the right to spend up to three months in Switzerland without a visa or permit, which makes it difficult for the authorities to monitor and apprehend transient beggars.
A small number of Geneva police recently took the law into their own hands, writing the word "beggar" in the passports of mainly Roma people they caught begging.
The practice, described by city bosses as "totally illegal and totally unacceptable", has now stopped and police officers may face sanctions. The city authorities have agreed to foot the bill for replacement documents.
Commuters in Basel and Zurich have complained of foreign beggars frequenting the tram network, showing pictures of sick children and pleading for money.
Zurich police routinely confiscate money from people they find begging and issue a warning that they will be detained if caught begging again on the same day.
"The police had the problem that the beggars didn't understand them when they gave a warning so now there's a leaflet in Romanian telling people what will happen if they persist in begging," Zurich police spokeswoman Judith Hödl told swissinfo.ch.
As the warm weather continues, seasonal beggars and the gangs that organise them are likely to remain active in Switzerland. Unless the Bern project gets results and acts as a deterrent.
Agora pilot project
In response to an influx of foreign beggars, including children and disabled people, Bern aliens police in April launched the Agora pilot project to try to combat the gangs organising the begging.
According to the police, three-quarters of the newly arrived beggars are Romanian or Bulgarian. The remainder are from Poland and Slovakia.
Bern aliens police are cooperating with the relevant authorities abroad as well as the city authorities on this project.
The project involves covert surveillance of the beggars to determine how they work and who is pulling the strings.
It is known that the gangs have mobile phones and street maps, marked with begging hotspots, and well-dressed minders keep an eye on young and disabled beggars. As soon as the begging cup is half full, runners come to collect the money and change it into notes.
At the end of the day the beggars are picked up from meeting points on the outskirts of the city.
Romanian embassy statement to swissinfo.ch
The Embassy of Romania in Bern actively represents the Romanian Government and is in continuous contact with the Swiss authorities with assistance and support. The complex cooperation works well and covers a lot of issues.
Since the Schengen free movement of people agreement between Switzerland and the EU came into force on June 1, 2009, Romanian and Bulgarian citizens, like other EU citizens, are able to travel to and work in Switzerland.
Accordingly, the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Romanian Embassy in Bern have prepared information to inform interested citizens about their rights and duties. The Embassy would like all Romanian citizens to be informed about these when they enter Switzerland.
It should be stressed that the Romanian Government is keen to keep the workforce in its own country. Accordingly, a series of measures have been taken for the return and reintegration of people. At the same time, it must be said that the free movement and fundamental rights of people can in no way be restricted.
From the information we have received, it seems that some of the Romanian beggars in Bern and other Swiss cities could be of Roma descent. The Roma, who left Romania 10-15 years ago, live according to their own cultural lifestyle and travel all over the European continent.
Romania actively takes part in measures to assist the social integration of the Roma. Discrimination in schools is forbidden and study places at grammar schools and universities are reserved for the Roma. Many other different measures are programmed by the government's National Agency for the Roma.
The Roma problem is quite complex and the responsibility can't be left to one government alone as the Roma minority are transnational. Romania supports the promotion of a European policy for the Roma minority and is actively engaged in these issues at a European level.
It has also has to be said however, that many high qualified Romanians living in Switzerland (doctors, professors, artists) are well integrated and contribute to the cultural development of their adopted country.
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