Beggars, Inc. Romanians Duped into Panhandling in Germany

A Romanian family in Hamburg has made a business out of luring compatriots to Germany and promising them jobs and better lives. Instead, they are coerced under highly dubious circumstances into becoming beggars for the "employer".

The new recruit learned how to be a good beggar on his first day in Germany, on an abandoned lot on the far side of the tracks at Hamburg's central train station. At the beginning of his lesson, he was told to put on two old sweaters and was given a blue crutch so that he could practice walking with it. He would throw his left leg further forward than his right, causing his hips to buckle as he stumbled across the grass.

After about 10 meters (40 feet), he came to a stop, bent his upper body forward and said three German words, drawing out the first vowel sound: bitte (please), danke (thank you) and Entschuldigung (excuse me). Then he haltingly told a story in which he described himself as the father of a son who is waiting for an operation in a Romanian ophanage. The child in this story has brittle bone disease, and his limbs are twisted and fragile. The man practiced for half an hour while his boss, as he says, stood next to him and watched.

The man, Vasile Rotaru, a 31-year-old whose name has been changed by the editors, has a slight build, a solid belly and thick arms. He comes from a village in Transylvania, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, in central Romania. When he arrived in Germany at the beginning of the year, he had a modest dream: He wanted to find work, perhaps build a small house and achieve happiness. He had no idea of the high standards that exist in the German labor market.

The sky is dark blue on this late January afternoon, three days after his arrival in Hamburg, and Rotaru is standing in a corner at the train station, wrapped in an old jacket. He holds out a paper cup containing a few coins, and appears to be perspiring. Pedestrians walk past him, buses depart behind him and cooing pigeons land in front of his feet. If someone were to take a long-exposure photograph of Rotaru from above, he would appear as an unmoving dot in the midst of a blurred tide of movement.

Rotaru's boss has transformed him into a sort of poorly dressed statue, one that spends eight hours a day doing nothing but standing at the train station and lying. He's the company's most recent hire. Since joining, though, he's had one thing in mind: leaving the job as quickly as possible. Rotaru says that since beginning his new line of work, he's been overcome by a sense of shame. It's out of fear of his boss that he shows up for work each day.

Turning Poverty into a Profession

The boss, Sandu Trandafir, whose name has also been changed to protect his identity, is a man with whom he once harvested potatoes in Titesti, in the southern Carpathians. Trandafir's company essentially consists of a group of 10 men and women from the same village, most of them related to one another, along with a variable number of others. Trandafir has developed a business model that now shapes their lives: He has turned poverty into a profession.

Trandafir, a short, erect man with a thick beard, is standing at the eastern entrance to Hamburg's central station on a winter morning, drinking black coffee from a paper cup. He's waiting for the bus that brings his workers to the station at about 9 a.m.

His ancestors were Roma who worked as spoon carvers, a profession that has died out. In fact, members of the Roma minority have few job prospects of any kind. The monthly child allowance in Romania is the equivalent of €9 ($12) per child, while the welfare subsidy amounts to about €25 a month, compared to average earnings of around €546. To qualify for the subsidy, a Romanian must prove that he or she has unsuccessfully looked for work, or has spent 72 hours a month collecting garbage or shoveling snow for the local community. The latter rule is designed to ensure that the individual is not living and working abroad. Trandafir's hands feel coarse and dry, as if he had often shoveled snow in his lifetime.

Trandafir says that when he gets up every morning, he thanks God he is living here in Hamburg, this wonderful, clean place where he can apply his entrepreneurial skills, and where he is allowed to do as he pleases and is even supported in the process. In his 30 years on this earth, he says, no one ever felt that he, as a member of the Roma, was capable of doing anything, especially in his native Romania.

When he arrived in Hamburg four years ago, says Trandafir, he spent a long time looking for work. He stood around at or near the train station every day, he says, staring into space, and at some point he sat down on the ground. One morning, when someone tossed a coin into a cup that was standing in front of him, he thought about becoming a beggar. He learned a few tricks by observing other beggars, and he was doing well before long. Eventually he hit upon the idea of starting his own business.

He brought his brother to Hamburg three years ago and told him about his business idea. He knew it wouldn't be easy. Employees would enjoy none of the usual perks, no paid vacation, no sick leave, no employee cafeteria and no health insurance. But there would be competition. For Trandafir, the challenge was to figure out how to be more successful than others.

At first glance, his business doesn't appear to be breaking any laws; independent begging, though prohibited in Romania, is legal in Germany. But organized, commercial begging is not permitted in Germany, and if beggars are forced into service to earn money, it can be considered human trafficking. The perpetrators are usually deported and are sometimes put on trial in their native countries, although such prosecutions are rare. Under Romanian law, the offence can be punished with prison terms of between three and 12 years.

Unwanted New Arrivals

Rotaru, the newest member of Trandafir's business, is unfamiliar with these laws. He also doesn't know that people like him, immigrants from Romania, are unwanted new arrivals  in Germany, and that there are politicians who want to protect the country from them. Rotaru says he likes Hamburg -- the seagulls and the way people greet each other. He could imagine stepping out of his brick building in the morning, waving to his wife at the window -- if he had one -- and then buying a ticket for the bus ride to work. He has also learned a little German already, and his favorite word is "tschüs" (Bye!). So far, he says, everything about Hamburg seems welcoming to him.

On this morning, though, Rotaru is sitting in a bus headed for the train station, where Trandafir is expecting him. He has taken a seat by the window so he can look outside, but he's too tired to enjoy the scenery. At 8:30 a.m., he gets off the bus at a stop across the street from the station. Trandafir silently nods to Rotaru, and then Rotaru goes over to the bus's luggage compartment, where the driver, wearing a gold chain, is unloading bags. Rotaru takes his blue crutch from the driver and goes to his spot next to the train station.

His boss, Trandafir, watches him silently as he walks away. He, too, is a fan of Hamburg. He likes the fresh air, and the fact that no one, except drunks, berates them on the street. He thinks it's a nice gesture on the part of the city that it transports people and crutches for his business in the morning and in the evening.

Today there are about 30 passengers on the bus. Most have brought along crutches, plastic bags and backpacks, and the driver even hands one of them a wheelchair. They come from emergency winter shelters, from outlying districts where the city has housed them, and the city pays the bus company to bring them into downtown Hamburg in the morning. Most will spend the day earning money in the pedestrian zone. In the evening the bus drives them back to their shelters.

Jan Pörksen, a senior official at the city office that handles social welfare, family and immigrant issues, is in charge of the program. Pörksen has pale blue eyes and sports a red tie. Having just returned from vacation, he's now back to managing the winter emergency program, which is part of the city's assistance program for the homeless.

When asked about the bus situation, Pörksen looks a little uncomfortable and gazes out the window for a moment before saying: "Whenever our housing is a little farther out, we offer a shuttle bus."

Pörksen says a thorough daily cleaning of the schools where the immigrants sleep make this necessary. He also admits that locals don't want them to remain in their neighborhoods as this cleaning takes place. In addition, the city also feels that asking the temporary shelter residents to take public transportation into the city would be too much to expect. There might be another motive at play here as well: Fears that hundreds more people might dodge fares on the city's subways and buses each day.

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.

Human-Trafficking

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