Beggars, Inc. Romanians Duped into Panhandling in Germany
Part 2: Earning 800 to 900 Euros a Day
The image of Pörksen's city has suffered a little recently, both because of the Lampedusa refugees and the street clashes, and Pörksen knows it. Nevertheless, the city is proud of its winter emergency program, which serves about 700 homeless people. "First of all, we don't turn anyone away," says Pörksen. "No one is required to provide his or her real name. We want to keep the bar low for the program, so that no one freezes to death."
He doesn't like to admit it, but he did hear that a bus with 13 Romanians arrived at one of the makeshift shelters a few days ago. Pörksen is uneasy about the fact that the social worker in charge there let them in. Nevertheless, he says, "it's hard to tell whether anyone is being taken advantage of." Sometimes the beggars themselves don't know what to expect.
Most of the beggars have entrusted themselves to the care of a facilitator, someone they know from back home and who organizes their trip to Germany and provides them with a mattress and a place to beg, earning a commission in return. They can earn 50 a day or more on a good day, but less than 10 on rainy days. They are allowed to keep 10 or 15 percent of the money, while the boss collects the rest.
According to a study by the International Labor Organization human traffickers forced more than 300,000 people to beg in 2012. Now that the problem is getting worse, European lawmakers have added forced begging as a separate offence to the 2011 European Union Directive on Trafficking in Human Beings.
So far, this hasn't affected Trandafir and his business. The last time the office of criminal investigation in the city-state of Hamburg looked into a similar case was six years ago. The police are familiar with the problem, and they know that it hasn't gone away. But few beggars are likely to testify voluntarily.
Rotaru has decided to discreetly tell his story, but he has to wait until his boss leaves to go eat. Then he will jump on a commuter train for 10 minutes. he doesn't care what direction. Now, sitting in an Asian restaurant, he orders a meat stew and a soda. Beads of sweat glisten on his nose. He wants to talk. He's concerned about his honor.
A week ago, Trandafir came to his village in Romania with his van and took along Rotaru and 10 other men. He told them there would be work for them in Hamburg, and he offered to drive them there and provide with accommodations for 100 each, which they could pay later or work off. The men spent the 2,000-kilometer (1,243 mile) trip on an old mattress in the back of the van. There was little conversation. Rotaru has no idea which countries they passed through. He stared at the ceiling and thought about his new life in Hamburg.
He had only been abroad once before, in Spain, where he worked on a construction site. He is almost fluent in Spanish, which allows us to communicate with him in that language. He lost his job when the financial crisis began. After that, he went back to Romania and did nothing, he says. He was excited during the trip to Hamburg, imagining what it would be like to dream in German, and what the women would look like in Hamburg. He also slept a lot.
On the evening after their arrival in Hamburg, Trandafir took Rotaru to a former school on the city's outskirts. He told Rotaru that sometimes he and his other employees slept there, too, when it became too cold for them outside.
Rotaru's name was added to a list, and he was given a sleeping bag. A friendly woman pointed to a cot in a room full of Bulgarians, and she indicated to him that he should label his beer bottles with a sticker with his name on it and place them in a crate outside the door. He thought about telling her that he can't write, but since he doesn't drink beer, he said nothing.
During the night, he lay on his cot, his eyes wide open, waiting for one of the Bulgarians to come and stab him. He says he waited for hours, but nothing happened.
Lies and Deception
The next morning, Trandafir took him to a flea market, where he bought clothing and six crutches for 2 a piece. Then they went to the empty lot behind the tracks.
The last time he spoke with Trandafir in his village in Romania, he had offered him a job selling newspapers in Hamburg, says Rotaru. There was no longer any talk of that now, and he had also accumulated a debt with Trandafir, to pay for the trip to Germany, that was growing by the day.
This is how the business model works: Trandafir's family members serve as drivers and overseers. They make up the core of the business and are permitted to keep the money they earn begging. The others, the neighbors and acquaintances, incur a debt as a result of the trip, says Rotaru. As long as they are unable to repay the debt they have upon arrival in Hamburg, along with the arbitrary interest Trandafir keeps adding to the debt, they are forced to continue begging.
Rotaru orders another soft drink in the Asian bistro. "Sandu sat down on a cot in front of me and slowly ate a brioche without giving me any of it," he says. His initial debt to Trandafir was only 100, but then, says Rotaru, the boss added 10 in interest, followed by 20 and, if he felt like it the next, would add another 10. At 6 p.m. every day, Trandafir collects the money his workers have earned begging and enters their names and the amounts into a green book, says Rotaru. "Sandu earns between 800 and 900 euros a day," he explains. That's how the business works.
Rotaru says that he can't simply leave, because he doesn't know where he would go. And he can't stop begging, because of his debt to Trandafir.
He would never think of going to the authorities. After telling his story, he returns to the train station. He is afraid that the overseers will reprimand him, and he is afraid of Trandafir.
The others have scattered around the vicinity of the train station in the morning. Trandafir's mother is sitting in front of a church, while her husband is at his usual spot along the city's Lake Alster. Trandafir's brothers, the overseers, remain at the train station, not far from Rotaru. The remaining beggars work outside city hall, wandering back and forth like vagrants who are half asleep. In reality, each is keeping an eye on everyone else.
'I'm a Respectable Man'
When confronted with the story, Trandafir denies the accusations. He doesn't know that they came from Rotaru, but he says: "I don't like it when people spread lies about me." Of course he helps residents from his village get their bearings in Hamburg, he says. "I even lend them money sometimes, if necessary. But I don't get rich on anyone," says Trandafir. "I'm a respectable man."
After lunch, Trandafir walks through the pedestrian zone, looking for his people, making sure his business is running smoothly. He has a wife and two children at home in Romania. His mother, Lizica, will take the bus to Romania this evening to see the family, take money home and recruit new people. She will tell the villagers that Sandu is returning with his van in three or four weeks. When she boards the bus in the evening, with four salami sandwiches, a pretzel and some cucumber salad, it will be with a ticket paid for by the city government. Hamburg pays the bus fare for those who have failed to gain a foothold in the city or who are homeless and have fallen ill. Sending them home is easier than trying to create opportunities for them in Germany.
It is March, and Trandafir has left for Titesti. Rotaru is standing in front of a consumer electronics store in Hamburg's pedestrian zone. He has grown a beard and is wearing new, bright yellow sneakers. He has also put on a little weight. Rotaru, who was begging at the train station only recently, is about to go for a walk to the harbor. He says that he can't sit still, because he's so in love with Moni, his new girlfriend, who he met at the train station in Buxtehude near Hamburg.
Rotaru has left the business. He is no longer a beggar. It took him three weeks to pay off his debt of 140, he says. "Then I told the boss that I was quitting." And the boss let him go.
Rotaru exchanged his crutch for a pair of gloves, which he needs for his new line of work. He takes the train to Buxtehude every morning at 8 a.m. Rotaru works for himself now. He gathers bottles on the street and collects the deposits.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Romanians Duped into Panhandling in Germany
- Part 2: Earning 800 to 900 Euros a Day