Beggars not wanted: a chronology of the exclusion of ‘poverty immigrants’ in Munich
On 20th of August 2014, the city of Munich enacted a ban on begging in its downtown area with the intention of tackling so-called ‘forced begging’. The ban is, however, primarily targeting and outlawing so-called ‘poverty immigrants’ from Romania and Bulgaria. What kind of exclusionist logics are underlying this ban?
“I could stop this event at any moment. I will explain it once more: The point is not to ban begging in the old town in general. Quite the contrary: poverty can and even should stay visible in Munich.” The statement of Munich’s Assistant Commissioner of Police seemed like a justification. At any rate, it conveyed the tense atmosphere, which slowly began to emerge during the press conference on the begging ban of the District Administration Authority (KVR) of Munich in August 2014. Leftist activists in the audience had begun to interrupt the speakers repeatedly, and even journalists started contesting the given report by asking critical questions. They wanted to know, for instance, how organised begging will be distinguished from so-called ‘silent begging’—a question to which the speakers from the KVR and the police had no answer. The main reason given for the enactment of the ban on so-called ‘organised begging’ in Munich’s Old Town is a zero-tolerance approach towards the ‘criminal circumstances’ that Eastern European beggars are said to be often forced into. Another justification brought forward by the authorities broaches the issue of repeated complaints about begging allegedly made by Munich’s citizens.
In front of the building where the press conference took place, activists mounted a banner with the slogan “Fight Poverty, Not The Poor!” — exemplifying that they had understood this decision as a symptom of a deeper logic of exclusion of Eastern European immigrants. To understand how it could come to both, the begging ban and the tense atmosphere at the conference, one needs to look at how the treatment of so called ‘poverty immigrants’ in Munich developed over the last years. A chronology of the events demontrates that this ban is about more than just begging.
“The way Romanians and Bulgarians are treated here hurts me”, remarked Savas Tetik, co-founder of the information centre ‘Migration and Work’. “These are all obstacles which prevent you from being European, even if you are [by citizenship]. These people want to work here and everyone just complains about it”. Debates and political measures in relation to the immigration of citizens from Romania and Bulgaria started in Germany even before both of these two states became EU members in 2007. Germany and Austria had already been fighting for permission to restrict the free movement of workers from the new member states in the run-up to the first Eastern enlargement of the EU in 2004. With such permission, the two countries before 2004 and again 2007 sought to counteract an immigration influx which—as they portrayed it—would cause wages to fall and unemployment rates to rise, hence jeopardising their national labour markets. The restricted freedom of movement did not just mean limited access to benefit payments for Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants, but also that they could only be employed if they had a special EU work permit.1 Unrestricted access to the labour market was open only to immigrants from Eastern Europe who sought work as seasonal labourers, and owned businesses.
Despite these regulative hurdles, immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania arrived continuously in Germany and Munich since the EU accession of those states in 2007 – amongst them many Roma, and members of an ethnic-Turkish minority in Bulgaria. Due to these labour-market restrictions, immigrants who did not speak German, possess a high school diploma, or had undergone vocational training remained largely left to their own devices.
Savas Tetik, who co-initiated the ‘Migration & Work’-information centre, founded by the municipality in Summer 2012, explained to me in detail what being left on one’s own means. He illustrated the vicious circle which immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania are caught in: This group has no access to benefits, for which reason they cannot make any demands at employment agencies and are mostly unable to find a residence or shelter. Without a postal address, they cannot complete their mandatory registration process with the municipal authorities and therefore receive no social insurance numbers, which are a precondition for finding legal work – for which reason the vast majority is exposed to the hands of manipulators and exploiters in the housing and labour market; working without social insurance for inhuman wages in the cleaning or construction sector – from time to time even without receiving any pay at all.
All in all, this prototypal negative dynamic is the reason why “these people can’t settle down here”, as Tetik remarked. Even if one’s stay exceeds the duration of five years and thus would entitle one to full social welfare and permanent residence permits, the required evidence to prove the duration of this often cannot be produced, as many immigrants have lived through periods of homelessness or were not registered with the municipal authorities for other reasons. In addition to this socio-juridical exclusion, there are many more practices that criminalise and discriminate those affected. For instance, the Deutsche Bahn imposes legal orders on banning them from railway stations (bans which may last up to one year) as soon as homeless Romanians and Bulgarians seek shelter there without a recognisable travel intention.
2013-2014: Off beat
“The problem is … no one wants these people to be in the district south of Munich’s central station”, REGSAM-Moderator, Gretel Rost explained. However, it is exactly in this area where a culture of survival has evolved. Immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria cannot turn to the municipal homeless shelters due to welfare legislations as well as a general lack of capacity. The municipal housing obligations only go as far as to force the city of Munich to provide an emergency shelter for periods of extremely cold temperatures, yet this shelter does not open until temperatures drop below zero degrees celcius. Due to this exclusion, the local street scene around Munich’s central station is increasingly dominated by male immigrants who can be seen every day at the so-called “Arbeiterstrich” (Worker’s Strip) located at the intersection of Goethe- and Landwehrstraße, by women and men who wait for occasional jobs, sporadically begg in the streets and in shops after work, seek warmth and sleep on the street or in short term rented cars. It seems, however, – or so at least in the media, district meetings, and a petition – that the small businesses in the area are increasingly becoming upset about these activities. “The current situation is no longer acceptable and must not become permanent”, they exclaimed in their petition on August 2013 to the city of Munich. And they go on: “We point out that we have a right to a humane and civilised environment of working and living. We call for coordinated, consistent and sustainable responses from both social workers and the police”.
“The Association of the district south of Munich’s central station approached us in 2013 because of the conditions in the district”, says Gretel Rost. This is how a regular topical meeting of the district began under the auspices of the municipal social department. REGSAM serves as an intermediary in this context, so that the people on site can directly report their complaints to the municipal administration. It has become especially evident that a daytime recreation room in the district is important, so that the day-loaners can have a rest, can have access to support services and sanitary facilities”. From this time onwards, the district south of Munich’s central station became an area in need of active governance of public space to the municipal authorities. Also in terms of city-wide politics, a response to this specific kind of immigration can be noticed. Based on a city council request from “Die Grünen” (Green Party) in 2012 , a round table on poverty immigration from Southeast Europe has meanwhile been established under the auspices of the social services department where representatives of aid agencies and the city government deliberate on possible solutions and strategies to problems.
“Benefit cheats will be kicked out!” is the prominent threat of Horst Seehofer, that accompanied his party’s so-called ‘social tourism’ debate at the end of 2013. The main reason why discussions in Germany increased in their harshness during this time had been because Romanians and Bulgarians were approaching full labor mobility, which became effective on January 1, 2014. “CSU plans an offensive against poverty migrants”2 the headline of Süddeutsche Zeitung on the December 28, 2013 accordingly read. The article cited party’s strict course against the expected immigrants from Eastern Europe that was discernible already then:
“The continual abuse of the European freedom of movement by poverty immigration threatens not only the acceptance of free movement among the citizens, but also brings communities to the limits of their financial capacities”.
The CSU not only intended to implement full benefit refusals and re-entry bans for immigrants who have committed benefit fraud – the practice of the federal government to exclude foreign immigrants entirely from receiving benefits under SGB II (Hartz IV) within the first three months of their residence is being maintained as well. “From the fourth month onwards, the exclusion from the right to receive benefits will work according to § 7 Abs. 1 S. 2 Nr. 2 SGB II”, explained the instruction for experts of the Federal Employment Agency written in December 2013, meaning that citizens of Romania and Bulgaria who stay in Germany solely for job-seeking purposes, as is mostly the case, will generally be excluded from benefit payments, even after 3-months. Social benefits as well as access to the social housing market will be granted in full only after five years—a practice that is maintained by the federal government, although it probably violates the European principle of equal treatment.
On January 1, 2014, based on a resolution of its round table and drafted by the responsible committees of the municipal government, the social services department of Munich introduced its citywide policy on “poverty immigration” to the city council. The Status report on the ‘problem’ of poverty immigration identified several problem areas, such as social exclusion of immigrants, homelessness, fake self-employment, begging, exploitation on the Worker’s Strip, health care, unauthorized so-called “wild camping” in urban areas and proposed possible solutions. Despite the coordination and expansion plans of already existing advisory and assistance services outlined in this document, the city emphasized in the document that it wished to maintain its restrictive stance on certain basic points:
“The accommodation of immigrants is not the task of housing assistance and exceeds both, the obligation and the real possibilities of the city of Munich. It could also be an incentive to let oneself be housed at low cost or free of charge.”
In addition, it aims at a close-knit, long-term network of agencies in the city such as the KVR and the trade authority as well as various aid agencies to prevent benefit fraud, unauthorized camping in the city area, and illegal or organized begging.
The striking coexistence of both restrictive and supportive humanitarian measures suggests a contradictory attitude towards immigration from Eastern Europe. The retention of past exclusion practices in terms of housing outlined here, and the networking of the authorities in terms of the avoidance of benefit fraud raises the question of a mutual interdependence of medial debates and federal as well as local policies. Against this background one might wonder in how far the category ‘poverty immigrant’ is complicit in creating and maintainig this reality of exclusion which it claims to merely describe. While participating in the round table the same year, my impression of ambivalence was confirmed once again. Or as one of the presenters has put it:
“We won’t be able to keep all those people in the structures, maybe. Perhaps only the younger generation.”
This round table however, was actually intended to “get away from the fearful media debates and towards what really is doable … to solutions”, an employee of the city told me. When I confronted her with my impression, that the city administration’s attitude against immigrants seems partly contradictory and the cooperation of the responsible authorities uncoordinated, she replied that there are a lot of different actors within the city administration, and therefore also different interests. Furthermore, the drafted resolution would also reflect only the current consensus. And this might change again. Poverty immigration, she finally said, would constitute such a problem for the city “because we are dealing with poverty that we so far have not really known in this form.” The city’s ambivalence in the draft resolution is reflected quite well on page 40: “Basically, the city faces a dilemma: on the one hand, one does not want to leave people in extreme distress alone. On the other hand, it is very difficult for immigrants to develop long-term prospects for an independent life without depending on government benefits here, if the basis for a lasting integration is missing. (…) It is generally agreed that unnecessary incentives must be avoided.” In the last paragraph, “Coordination and the Way Forward”, it is not only noted that areas of action need to be substantiated further, but also that the decision where humanitarian emergency stops and where more social benefits or tolerance would lead to an increase of incitements would pose the biggest difficulty.
In spring of 2014, the small business owners in the district south of Munich’s central station jointly hired a private security company, as the city has no legal right to expel the beggars and day-loaners: “This man cleans up – because the city lets the business-owners down”, reads the Bild newspaper title on April 24, 2014. The following illustration evokes the chain of association “dangerous man- dangerous district- dangerous immigrants”, and stands exemplarily for the media discourse those days about the district, expatiating the pictures and semantics of negativity it contains.
While the discourse in the district increased in hostility by the end of 2014, the City Council still hoped for the implementation of the planned consultation cafe. This should have become, as evidenced by the interviews that I led, an elementary contribution to ease the tense situation in the district and, ultimately, the entire city. However, its implementation was delayed as the owner of a potential property for the cafe resigned because he read a tabloid-newspaper’s report about the district and its circumstances. It is, in some way, a paradox of exclusion that it remains powerful even when there are attempts to introduce countermeasures.
Since 2014: Closing the gap
On August 12, 2014, the KVR, in cooperation with Munich’s Police, finally enacted the ban on begging in the downtown area. On the one hand, the authorities justify the ban by means of recourse to numerous complaints from citizens about increased begging within the last year, and on the other hand, by recourse to the city’s new resolution not to tolerate the criminality that allegedly goes along with begging. The main line of argument concerns people smuggled to Munich from Southeast Europe under false promises and forced to beg under the threat of violence – terms like “gangs”, “illegal practices” and “backers” were used again and again during the press conference. In the enacted statute , one reads that one may speak of “forced begging” as soon as “several people who beg during the day, are found in living in the same dwellings and tent camps, in parks or under bridges.” This passage brings up the legitimate question to what extent a ban on begging relates back to poverty immigration and to what extent the expulsion of ‘illegal beggars’ stands more than just symbolically for that of the poverty immigrants altogether. What makes the discursive shift from ‘immigrants’ to ‘beggars’ that comes along with this new control technique so dangerous, is primarily the criminalization of said immigrants that it brings along. It is accompanied by an appeal to the moral consciousness of the citizens of Munich, transferred in the vocabulary of human rights. Who would, after all, not be against criminal gang structures forcing Eastern European immigrants to beg, and therefore consequently avoid beggars? In addition, the KVR calls on Munich’s citizens to report “obstrusive or aggressive begging”.
Just one week after the enactment of the anti begging order, the local public transportation company (MVG) advised its passengers on its website and via info screen and announcements on the platform on “how to deal best with begging musicians”. It advised them not to give money to beggars in subways because criminal gangs were often involved. The appeal was followed by the appendix: “Anyone who feels disturbed by begging musicians can speak to the driver or security personnel. In addition, SOS telephones are available on station platforms. If used, the relevant operating centers of MVG and S-Bahn will be informed; they can then send security personnel to stop begging and/or playing music.” This initiative has been made in collaboration with Deutsche Bahn AG.
Moreover, in the days and weeks following the enactment of the ban, the tone of the urban daily newspapers increased in sharpness. On September 30, 2014, an oversized poster showing a woman begging on the street was affixed to all boxes of the local newspaper TZ within the city with a large heading stating “The new trick of the begging mafia!” Below the picture one can read: “Now they present themselves to be humble”.
It seems justified to ask to what extent the said group of immigrants – after denial of access to social benefits, the housing system and the regulated labour market – thereby looses the last spaces remaining to them now – spaces, on which their survival in this city depends entirely.
This is how exclusion reproduces itself, and, in its circular logic, creates ever new “problems”, which eventually will then have to be “solved” by even harsher restrictions.
I’m a cultural anthropologist based in Munich, interested in urban anthropology, ethnographic regime analysis and the study of social inequality.
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