A woman begging. Photo: APA/BARBARA GINDL Begging is seen as an increasing problem in Austria’s cities, and some provinces are trying to tackle the issue with social measures.
Some parts of the country, such as Tyrol and Salzburg, tried banning begging altogether, and Graz tried to restrict beggars from certain areas of the city. However the Constitutional Court has overturned outright bans, ruling that begging is a human right.
Upper Austria is expected to bring in a ban this week against organized begging – in which begging is a business, with leaders who are presumed to receive most of the money and who organize who begs where, and when.
At present police in Upper Austria have very little power to stop organized begging. Around 50 beggars are currently active in the capital, Linz, but it’s not known how many of those are organized.
The Federal Criminal Police Office (BKÖ) estimates that there are currently between 2,000 and 2,500 beggars in Austria, and the majority of those are in Vienna.
“We believe that of the 1,100 Romanian beggars in Austria about 400 of those are involved in organized begging,” Gerald Tatzgern, of the Federal Criminal Police Office, told Die Presse newspaper.
The number of beggars in Vienna have not increased, but different faces are spotted on the streets, so it’s thought that begging organizations regularly bring new beggars into Vienna but control their numbers.
Tatzgern believes that human trafficking plays only a minor role in Austria’s begging community, but admits that there may be a number of unreported cases.
Begging was a central theme in Salzburg’s local election campaign. In May the Catholic charity Caritas set up a shelter for around 50 impoverished migrants who were sleeping rough and who were often attacked.
Since the beginning of the year Tyrol has allowed “silent and passive” begging, but “aggressive and pushy” begging is still banned, as well as “enlisting the assistance of children”. Innsbruck’s mayor is currently looking into whether it will be possible to ban begging in certain streets at certain times.
Graz’s mayor wants to introduce begging zones for the city centre, where beggars must apply for a permit. The idea is to limit the number of beggars who are active each day. He is also working on social measures to help beggars – and is impressed with an EU project which trained 12 beggar families to work as organic garlic farmers.
A Begging Mafia?
The Tyrolean branch of the Freedom Party (FPÖ) waded into the debate over ‘beggar mischief’ in Innsbruck with an unusual approach. They hired a private detective to investigate the activity of the city’s beggars, and claimed to have confirmed a few suspicions.
Party chairman Mark Abwerzger announced the results of the investigation on Tuesday morning in a press conference, including a detailed report and extensive photographic material.
After a two-month investigation, they have found “conclusive evidence” that begging was operated on a clearly commercial scale in the Tyrolean capital.
Abwerzger, a local councillor and former lawyer, suggested that those responsible should be prosecuted in accordance with the Tyrolean Regional Police Act.
He explained that there was a hierarchical organization in place in the city that had at peak times up to 17 beggars working in a coordinated way throughout the state capital.
Overseers would distribute the beggars to key points around Innsbruck, where they would start their activity. “The people are forced to go begging,” said the regional FPÖ leader.
The question of begging in Austria
I keep my eyes on his. My conscience squirms like a worm that’s had its tail cut off or a beetle on its back. Before I know it, he pulls out the Kinder card, “Ich habe Kinder und wir haben nichts zum essen.” He says this while raising his hand to his mouth with his fingers squeezed together at a point, like we’re taught when we’re babies is the sign for food.
A lavish plate of breakfast sits before me – sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, a dollop of hummus, blue cheese, olives and a basket of Turkish flat bread. It could feed several of those kids he’s talking about. I’m sitting at a Naschmarkt café on a Saturday morning and the sun is shining.
Life was feeling good until he came along. Until my privileged existence – that allows me to spend €10 Euros on a Turkish breakfast along with three coffees and read about the Gaza strip in the newspaper all morning from the comfort of peaceful Vienna – was disturbed. Like somebody has jumped into a still river at dawn. It annoys me and makes me feel like a terrible human being.
I shake my head and let out a soft, ‘nein, Entschuldigung.’ My conscience is now kicking and screaming and taking a knife to its throat.
He tries again. I don’t blame him. His hands look like he’s lived while mine look like they’ve just been washing dishes. But they haven’t, for I have a dishwasher.
This time the “Bitte” is drawn out and comes from within him, whiny like a shopping trolley with a busted wheel. I say “Nein” with more oomph and he’s off – to try the next person in the packed café. The speakers of the café are playing ‘Sun is shining’ – the remix version from Bob Marley and Funkstar de Luxe.