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Up to the courts Is begging a human right?

A beggar holds out a hand with a cup for putting money

Beggars are a common site on the streets of Lausanne.

(Keystone)

A move to ban begging in canton Vaud, now tied up in the courts, raises the question whether such a law undermines fundamental human rights.

The initiative by the cantonal branch of the conservative right Swiss People’s Party was approved by the Vaud parliament in September 2016. It calls for begging to be completely outlawed (even sitting on the ground and saying nothing, as opposed to “active” begging).

Opponents tried to launch a referendum to reverse it, but failed to collect enough signatures. And an appeal to the Vaud Constitutional Court was thrown out by 4 votes to 1. It’s now been appealed to the Swiss Federal Court in Lausanne.

“If we ban begging, what will we ban next?”

End of quote

The ongoing controversy over the Vaud law reflects a much wider debate.​​​​​​​

Exploitation?

“We see that the current rules in Lausanne are not sufficient for most of the population,” says Philippe Ducommun, a People’s Party member of the Vaud parliament and police inspector in the cantonal capital Lausanne, “nor for our party, because we think that begging is no longer tolerable in our country and because we want to fight against the exploitation of these people who are marginalised and who are begging.” He believes that Roma beggars are used by networks, profiting from “human distress”.

Lausanne-based lawyer Xavier Rubli, who is leading the challenge before the Federal Court, says this law is “unjust and scandalous”. “If we ban begging, what will we ban next?” he asks.

The law, if it comes into effect, provides for fines of CHF50-100 for begging, and CHF500-2,000 for anyone who organises begging rings or uses children for such purposes. If fines are not paid, people may be subject to prison sentences.

“Against fundamental rights”

Lawyer Rubli is leading the appeal on behalf of 12 parties. His clients include not only Swiss and Roma beggars but also Christians and Muslims who wish to defend their right to give alms as a religious obligation.

The appeal is launched on grounds that the new law would discriminate particularly against the Roma people and goes against fundamental human rights, which lawyer Rubli says are protected in the Vaud Constitution, the Swiss Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Switzerland is a signatory.

These rights include respect for private life and human dignity, economic freedom and freedom of opinion and expression. 

“You have the right to give to whoever you want, but it is not those people who will get the money”

End of quote

“Beggars sitting on the ground transmit a message,” says Rubli. “That may disturb or irritate passers-by, but it nevertheless raises a question in their minds - creates a debate.”

Ducommun thinks that it is “not very welcoming to see these beggars sitting on the ground”.

Protect the beggars

But he says the main reason to outlaw begging is to protect those who are reduced to doing it. “You have the right to give to whoever you want, but it is not those people who will get the money,” he told swissinfo.ch. “When you see the circus at the Place Bel-Air in Lausanne in the morning and all these beggars arriving and dividing up, you are not going to make me believe that the money is for them. It is for the people who oversee them and exploit them.”

He admits that there are also a few Swiss beggars, but says there are sufficient social structures and welfare aid in Switzerland to help them.

The Federal Court upheld a challenge to Geneva’s 2008 begging ban partly on such arguments of “protection”. But lawyer Rubli says it has never been demonstrated that Roma beggars are exploited by networks. He points to a 2012 expert reportexternal link on Roma begging in Vaud which concluded that “begging is not very well organised”.

Rubli says there have been many court decisions, notably in the United States and by Austria’s Constitutional Court, deeming freedom of expression to be a fundamental right which is violated by a total begging ban.

He stresses that it is not only Roma who beg, but also Swiss nationals. Nevertheless, in Lausanne and elsewhere, it tends to be the Roma, mostly from Romania, who are most visible.

Targeting the Roma?

One such person is Petru, interviewed in this report on Swiss Public Television, RTS.

“I have been in Switzerland for four years, because I wanted to find a bit of work here,” Petru says, “and in Romania there is no work, and it is really hopeless for us there.”

Swiss photographer Yves Leresche knows most of the Roma families in Lausanne and has been to Romania many times to photograph Roma communities. The pictures, taken between 2010-2015, were published in a series: "The tireless quest for paradise". In Romania the Roma were traditionally artisans and vendors, he says, but were conscripted like others to work in factories under the Communist regime.

When the Communist regime fell, there was a redistribution of land and the Roma found themselves without jobs or land. When Europe opened up, they started coming to other European countries, but it is hard for them to find and keep work there, especially as many are illiterate and do not speak the language well. And so they took to begging.

View of the back of a woman making a makeshift bed in a homemade tent in a forest area.

Mirela arranges a tent which she built herself in a forest in the Lausanne suburbs, Lausanne, 2014. From the photo series: "The tireless quest for paradise".

(Yves Leresche)

“The huge gap in living standards between Romania and Switzerland means it is financially worthwhile” for them, says Leresche, even with the fines they incur (e.g. for sleeping rough, begging in the wrong place, not paying fares on public transport).

A varied approach

In Switzerland, laws and regulations on begging vary, according to canton and municipality. In some places, such as Geneva and Zurich, it is already banned, but some doubt whether formal bans actually work. Geneva, for example, has banned begging since 2008, but there are still hundreds of Roma beggars on the streets.

In Vaud, many municipalities have introduced rules banning begging, but Lausanne has so far chosen to regulate rather than outlaw the practice, and has a mediator with the Roma community, retired police officer Gilbert Glassey.

Current regulations are laid down in Article 87 bis of Lausanne police regulations. Organised begging and using children to beg are outlawed, as is begging which is insistent or poses a danger to public order. Fines are possible for begging within a certain distance of shops and places where money is transacted, such as cash-points. Glassey believes current rules are working and that it is now “understood and accepted” by the local Roma community that child begging is not acceptable.

Counterproductive?

This position is supported by the Lausanne municipal authorities who wrote to the head of the Vaud parliament a year ago saying that new police rules on begging introduced in 2012 were generally working and had reduced the number of complaints. The letter also says the municipality has “always been against a total begging ban in Lausanne” and that such a ban would, as in Geneva, result in “heavy administration of complaints linked to begging without the objectives being attained, given the poverty of the offenders”.

Glassey thinks that the only way to stop Roma families from coming to Switzerland is to work on helping them in their places of origin.

Romanian family reunited. Father hugs his daughter.

Florin and Rita, after having spent 4 months in Lausanne, are welcomed back to their village in Romania by 3 out of their 4 children. Citatea de Balta, Romania, 2013, from the series: "The tireless quest for paradise".

(Yves Leresche)

The new law if it comes into force will be “complicated” to apply, says Glassey, and “some may not understand”. 

 “Not giving up”

Whichever way the Federal Court decision goes, neither side looks likely to give up. Lawyer Rubli believes he has a good chance of winning but, if not, he says he will go to the European Court of Human Rights.

Ducommun of the People’s Party is equally determined. “We are not going to drop this,” he told swissinfo.ch. “Because we clearly have signatures that we gathered in 2013 and a parliamentary vote in favour. So we are not going to give up, even if the Federal Court should decide against us.”

It is not clear how long the court’s decision will take. In the meantime, application of the law is suspended, and the debate continues.

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