Beggars will find it increasingly hard to get handouts on Swiss streets as one by one towns and cities tighten up regulations.
Lausanne is the latest focus of attention. Residents there are likely to vote on a people’s initiative which has just been handed in urging a ban on professional begging in the western Swiss city.
“Begging has existed for several years in Lausanne but recently there has been a change; some beggars are more aggressive and sometimes insulting and this creates problems for many people, especially the elderly who feel unsafe,” Mathieu Blanc, a local councillor with the centre-right Radical Party and president of the initiative committee, told swissinfo.ch.
The group on Tuesday handed over 11,000 signatures to city officials calling for an end to “organised begging”. If the text is accepted by the government next week, a local vote could take place in spring 2012 at the earliest.
Supporters of the initiative claim that organised groups of beggars - mostly Roma from eastern Europe – target strategic parts of the city on the shores of Lake Geneva. Daily earnings do not go to the beggars but end up in the pockets of “third parties”, they add.
In the 24Heures newspaper lawyer Jean-Daniel Dolivo, a local politician with the leftwing A Gauche toute! party, accused the Radicals of “xenophobic demagogy” and electioneering as the proposal was launched just ahead of the recent communal elections; but this was roundly rejected by the initiative supporters.
Vera Tchérémissinoff, director of the Opre Rrom association that supports the Roma community, said she was “sad and disappointed”.
“Begging is something new here in Switzerland. For a long time we have not been confronted with such levels of poverty and beggars, so I can understand people’s surprise – but not their rejection,” she told swissinfo.ch.
The Roma people are already extremely discriminated against, and such bans just make it even harder to change people’s opinions about Europe’s largest minority, she added.
Marc Vuilleumier, Lausanne’s councillor in charge of security and sport, said there were currently around 50-60 Roma who regularly asked the public for money on Lausanne’s streets in a “partly organised” fashion.
“I receive letters from people who complain but the Roma don’t pose a security problem,” he said.
Vuilleumier felt the solution to their problem lay back in Romania, not in Switzerland.
"It’s a European problem," he said.
According to Tchérémissinoff, the Roma begging in Lausanne are from two or three central Romanian regions.
They mostly come during the winter months as there is no work back home and approach the big Swiss cities with the idea of earning a few francs. But due to the bans or lack of work are reduced to begging. They earn between SFr10-30 a day.
There is no national legislation on begging in Switzerland. It is left to the cantons and communes to deal with the problem.
The recent call for a ban in Lausanne follows similar moves in other parts of French-speaking Switzerland, such as Geneva, Vevey, Montreux, Renens and ten communes west of Lausanne, as well as cantons Fribourg and Neuchâtel. Other locations, such as Aigle, Yverdon and Pully, are also considering bans.
Geneva introduced a ban in February 2008 but groups of Roma beggars are still visible on its streets, despite several police round-ups and regular controls. It is estimated that the number of 200 previously present in front of stores and banks may have been cut by half.
Older begging bans are also in place in Basel, Zurich and Lucerne.
“Numbers clearly increased following the introduction of Schengen [25-country passport-free travel zone], but it’s still a small problem compared with Zurich and Bern,” said Klaus Mannhart, spokesman for the Basel City police.
“We get around ten to 20 people every month who are usually checked, fined, possibly held and then sent away.”
Bern, meanwhile, has no ban against begging. But in June 2009 the police, along with Romanian and Bern city authorities launched a programme named “Agora” to crack down on organised gangs from eastern Europe targeting the city.
After almost 700 police checks - including 79 on children – totalling 2,000 working hours, Agora is considered a great success, said Bern aliens police chief Alexander Ott.
“We hardly have any more beggars; they say Bern and Switzerland – no more.”
Roma, Sinti, Kale, Lovara, Machvaya are just some of the hundreds of nomadic groups using the Romani language, who originally came from northwestern India between the 10th and 14th centuries.
They moved in waves first towards Asia Minor and then towards North Africa and Greece, before fanning out across Europe.
Although grouped together as travellers (or more pejoratively as gypsies), these nomadic peoples are in reality very diverse, in terms of ethnic background but also in terms of language, culture and religion of the country in which they reside.
They have been persecuted and discriminated against for hundreds of years and now live on the margins of society – not through choice.
They make up the largest ethnic minority in Europe, but it is hard to gain a clear overview.
Some estimates have their numbers at 15-20 million. Most live in central western Europe, with around two million in Romania.
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 freely to Switzerland for up to three months. For longer they need a short-term resident permit.end of infobox
The European Commission recently called on member states to better integrate Roma via the early participation of their children in European education systems as part of the EU’s growth strategy objectives for 2020.
By the end of 2011 EU states have to present national strategies that better integrate Roma communities, in particular in the fields of education, housing, health and employment.
According to Brussels, 42 per cent of children from the Roma community complete primary education, compared with 97.5 per cent for other European children.end of infobox