19 July 2008, Saturday
Rising opposition across party lines to an influx of beggars in Norwegian cities is prompting calls to reimpose a ban on begging. Some Labour Party officials, however, are defying the opposition and even countering their own party's ageing patriarch.
The 102-year-old former head of the Norwegian Labour Party, Haakon Lie, was among those lashing out last week against the relatively new bands of foreign beggars that have been aggressively coaxing coins out of Norwegians' pockets.
The beggars, many from Romania and Bulgaria, wander in groups or settle on street corners and shake their cups at passersby. Several of the women hunch on their knees and wail at passersby, in the hopes of gaining their pity.
It's the aggressive, often theatrical, nature of the begging that has spurred debate. In one case, three pairs of beggars systematically moved from bench to bench in a downtown park, waving their cups under the noses of those sitting there on a recent summer morning.
"Get them out of here," Lie told newspaper Dagsavisen. While the former Labour leader has sympathy for the drug addicts that also beg for spare change on Oslo's streets, he has none for the foreigners. "Norway shouldn't become a market for professional beggars and thieves from eastern Europe," Lie said.
In an unsual alliance, spokesmen for both the Conservatives and the Progress Party sided with Lie, as did Labour Party veterans Rune Gerhardsen and Jan Bøhler, the latter two both viewed as coming from Labour's leftist wing. Erling Lae, the top city politician from the Conservatives, wants to deport the foreign beggars.
But neither Justice Minister Knut Storberget, who's also from the Labour Party, nor Labour's spokeman on justice issues, Thomas Breen, will go along. Storberget points out that a law against begging was revoked just a few years ago, and he won't ask the police to round up the beggars.
Breen told newspaper Aften on Thursday that many of the foreign beggars can't be deported on the basis of visa violations. If they come from countries within the EU, for example, they don't need visas at all.
"Those who have a problem with beggars sitting with a cup have a personal problem," claimed Breen. "This isn't a problem that can be solved by the police. Foreign beggars come here because Norway is a wealthy country. We should instead try to help them so they can stop begging."