In recent years Helsinki and other large Finnish towns have seen increasing numbers of beggars, buskers, human statues and flower sellers. Many of them have arrived from central and eastern Europe, where they can live for a whole year on the meager proceeds of a few months’ begging in Finland.
There is a broad consensus on the desirability of stopping the practice, but differences remain on how that should happen.
Criminalisation "could backfire"
The previous attempt to criminalise begging received the most support from National Coalition and Finns party MPs. Lasse Männistö , MP and chair of the National Coalition group on Helsinki city council, says it is time to combat the problem.
“We have to create a common will to ensure that this problem is addressed,” said Männistö. “The will to improve these people’s lives in their own countries, but to give Finnish authorities and municipalities the opportunity to address the phenomenon and its negative side-effects.”
Prohibition also received qualified support from the city of Helsinki’s social services department. The department’s leading expert Jarmo Räihä says that the number of beggars has remained broadly the same from one year to the next.
“I cautiously support this kind of ban,” said Räihä. “For example a couple of years ago it wasn’t apparent that discussion of criminalisation would have backfired in some way.”
Helsinki mayor Jussi Pajunen, a member of the National Coalition party, has not warmed to the idea of criminalization, but recommends a solution based on rules and regulations as was applied in previous years. That would mean cities and municipalities would be able to limit begging for example at certain times or in certain places.
“Beggars are not criminals”
Pekka Tuomola of Helsinki’s Deaconness Institute, on the other hand, is critical of plans to criminalise beggars. According to him there are no judicial solutions to the matter in Finland, especially not in Helsinki. He believes the problem is EU-wide, and demands solutions on an EU level.
“The phenomenon has not changed at all from a couple of years ago, a total ban is still pointless, it wouldn’t work,” said Tuomola.
Tuomola works with beggars and other mobile populations every day. He works at the Hirundo centre and has founded the Global Clinic, that offers free healthcare to undocumented migrants. He says that he believes criminalization is the wrong policy.
“It is easy now to merge begging with criminality,” said Tuomola. “Beggars are not criminals, and this discussion is in my opinion quite dangerous.”
He suggests that discussion of criminalization of beggars could backfire and cause racist or aggressive behavior towards beggars. He sees no need for legal remedies to the problem.
“Aggressive begging is already forbidden in Finland, and in my opinion that is quite sufficient,” noted Tuomola. “Poverty cannot be banned by law, nobody goes begging in the streets if there isn’t extreme need.”