Romanians Duped into Panhandling in Germany
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.