Wednesday, April 14, 2010

On girafă*

I have earlier blogged about how Romanian accordion players have become something of a sign of spring in Oslo. They are everywhere. While my previous post focused on the charming element of this; there is a much more serious side of this story. This is the heart-wrenching part of it.

Most mornings I take the tram to the university. Oslo still has a number of street cars (in addition to the subway and buses) taking you across the (extended) city centre relatively efficiently. In my case, the tram ride takes longer than the subway, but it saves me from a more crowded commute and a longish walk in the morning when I usually am in a hurry. The tram also is crowded, but less so.

About a month or so ago I noticed a new trend on my morning tram ride. Three or four people unmistakably recognizable as Romanian accordion players and/or beggars were on the tram. Just like anyone else going to work, they were taking the tram. Only most people’s work doesn’t consist of standing outside (in still relatively cold weather) for twelve hours a day, hoping to earn a few coins from passing strangers.

The Romanians are easily recognized. The way they look and dress, for one thing, and the accordion many of them are carrying distinguishes them from most commuters. In addition I noticed one other thing on the tram – they carried the unmistakable smell of people who are living outdoors. These were human beings who hadn’t had the opportunity to take a shower or change their clothes for weeks. As I realized this, I pitied them, but there was nothing I could do about it, so it quickly escaped my mind when they left for work at their preferred locations downtown.

A few days later, however, I thought about them again when I read a news story in the paper. 41 Romanians had been evicted from a tiny apartment not far away from where I live, due to unsanitary conditions and for fire precaution reasons. The images from the apartment were disturbing to say the least. The mere idea that people had been living in what looked like a dump where food, garbage and excrements were floating, was shocking. The fact that they were so many in that tiny space, and that several of them had been seriously ill, made it all the worse. What perhaps made it especially close for me, however, was that the next morning, and every morning afterwards, the Romanians on the tram have been gone. It’s an easy conclusion to draw – the ones evicted were “my” Romanians.

I’m all for a liberal immigration policy. Partly because I realize that from a strictly economic perspective Norway is a country that without immigration would be in shortage of labour. From a socioeconomic perspective I also recognize the value the work and presence of these immigrants add to our society. Taking this into account, the challenge lies in having a solid integration policy, not in having a restricted immigration policy.

However, there are two problems with the current flow of people coming from Romania (and some other East European countries – but the Romanians make a reasonable example and a considerable portion of the group of people in question). First of all, they are not creating any values. They are not working, and thus they are not paying taxes. They are not buying anything here either, so from a strictly economic point of view, they are not adding to the creation of economic values. However, they are not creating any non-economic values either, seeing as they don’t intermingle with others.

Secondly, they are not immigrants. They have no intention of staying in Norway. They are here to make money, and the little money they make, they take back with them to Romania. What they are doing is taking economic values with them, and they are not making up for it by leaving anything (economic or otherwise) behind.

Even from a humanitarian point of view, however, I do not know if I think it is such a good idea for them to come here in a desperate search for money. I cannot even imagine what conditions they must be living under at home if they really see the alternative of living like animals crowded together in a foreign country is a price worth paying.

I got into a discussion a while back with a couple of friends. We all agreed that the situation for the Romanians in Oslo is awful and intolerable. We were not able to come up with an easy solution, though. My friends all argued that they felt terrible every time they passed one of the beggars without giving them anything. Personally, I have quite a firm principle when it comes to beggars. I almost never give anything, both because I rarely carry cash, but more importantly because I know that there are alternative ways for them to earn an income in Norway. No one has to beg on the streets here, and if they do, it’s often because they do not want to succumb to the institutions available. Obviously, this image is not always as black-white as I claim here, but that is the basic situation.

With the Romanians, however, the circumstances are completely different. They are not Norwegian citizens, and thus they don’t qualify for these institutions. And yet the Norwegian beggar who is openly going to use the money he receives on drugs, gets more than the obviously poor Romanian women holding their cups up to passers-by.

I still do not believe giving them my spare change will make any lasting difference. To me, it seems apparent that what needs to be changed is the system. Ideally, the system that should be changed is the one that is clearly not functioning well back in Romania. They should not have to come here and live under such inhuman conditions. As my friends pointed out, however, there isn’t much hope for a system change in Romania. So for us to wish that the Romanians leave and hope for the best back home, is not really a viable solution.

Apart from the guilty conscience they give us – are the Romanians really a problem here? Are they an actual burden to our admittedly well-fed society, or can we allow ourselves to let them stay if they believe this life is better than the one they were leading where they came from?

This is a difficult question. Many of them probably do no harm at all. I stand by my basic view that no one should have to live like this in Norway in 2010, but if they perceive themselves as better off here, who am I to judge? Well, there is an added problem that probably does not apply to all of them, but certainly to some. There have been raids of muggings and thefts that have been associated with the accordion players and the beggars. It appears that they operate in groups, where some of them are performing legit or semi-legit activities (it is technically legal to beg in Norway since the abolishment of the løsgjengerloven [“the drifter bill”, roughly translated] in 2006), while others are doing definite illegal ones. As it stands, it appears they have nothing to lose. If they avoid getting caught, they can return to their country with whatever values they have gained. If they are getting caught, they are put into Norwegian prisons, which, frankly, probably are far better than whatever lodging they have so far had in Norway.

As far as I can tell, there are indications but no firm evidence that the Romanians are organized – that the beggars and accordion players are working together with criminals who are raiding stores and private homes. Fortunately, one right that still applies to the Romanians (because it is a universal human right rather than one depending on the colour of your passport) is innocence until the opposite is proven.

Whether or not they are organized, however, (as another one of my friends pointed out) – they still need our help. Regardless of this, the partly documented and highly speculative indication that Romanians and other similar groups are responsible for a large share of crime in Oslo and Norway in general triggers xenophobia. Obviously, not all of the beggars and accordion players are criminals. But it is difficult if not impossible for the average Norwegian to distinguish the criminals from the rest, and this further diminishes the Romanians’ chances of succeeding with their legal efforts here.

In a way, the different attitudes towards the Romanians remind me of Victor Hugo’s famed Les Misérables. On the one hand, you have those who want to help no matter what – like the bishop who gives Jean Valjean food and shelter, and then dons Valjean two silver chandeliers stolen from the bishop as a way of getting Valjean out of trouble. On the other hand, you have the Javerts. The crazed police officer does everything possible to hunt down what he believes is a criminal. Neither the bishop or Javert takes the whole situation into account. Javert refuses to acknowledge that Valjean’s only crime was to steal because he wanted to feed a starving child. The bishop chooses to ignore Valjean’s criminal streak because he believes in the good within every human. While I would much rather be the bishop than Javert, I feel there is a middle road lacking. Someone who does recognize the fact that Valjean is a criminal (not so much for his original sin, but for the one he commits when stealing the chandeliers from his benefactor), but at the same time keeps in mind what caused him to commit the crime. And to me, the end result should be, rather than helping the individual and hope for the best (because sadly, not everyone would do like Valjean and turn his life around because of one act of kindness), removal of the cause of the collective problem. Valjean shouldn’t have been put in a position where he was forced to steal in the first place. The Romanians in Norway should not have to beg or steal or even play the accordion. They should have jobs, and some genuine prospects.

In the meantime there are now at least 41 Romanians who no longer have a home, but who nevertheless probably still live somewhere in Oslo, hoping to earn those few kroner each day so that they might have a slightly better life when they return home come autumn. It is heartbreakingly sad, but I really do not know what can be done.

* Girafă means giraffe (no surprises there) in Romanian. Romanian being a romance language (”romance” as in the language category, not as in ”Lady and the Tramp meatball puffing”) isn’t a language I normally would have chosen to title a giraffy blog (since languages within the same linguistic group often have similar sounding words for obsolete things such as giraffes, and this normally wouldn't have been exotic enough for me to chose). However, with the topic of the blog it seemed to fit. Sadly.

It might have been more appropriate for this post to use the Romani word for giraffe instead of the Romanian one. In Norway the media almost consequently uses the term “Romanians” to denominate the people I have spoken of in this post, and I have chosen to do so too. Even though many of them are Romanian citizens, they are Romani people, gypsies (or so I have been told). While certain people in Norway have used this as an excuse to distinguish this group from other Romanians, in reality this is just another way of discriminating gypsies. The relevance of making this distinction, however, could be that we know gypsies are already shunned many places, and it makes the argument that they are not living good lives elsewhere more valid. But apart from that, I don’t see the relevance of distinguishing them from other Romanians, so I have avoided doing so.

However, Wikipedia failed to teach me what a gypsy would call a giraffe. I could not find a Romani page for giraffe (which has been my way of finding exotic giraffe names). Whether this means that the Romani aren’t all that into giraffes or if it has some other explanation, I cannot say.

Also, this post has taken me a looooong time to write (and it is looooong as well – sorry about that). It is a touchy topic, with a number of potential traps to fall into. I didn’t wish to offend anyone, so I weighed each word carefully. I didn’t wish to simplify the problem, so I have read countless newspaper articles, public police reports, and other research material that I was able to get a hold of. Most of all, I did wish to do justice to this subject, paticularly because I feel a lack of justice this has often been part of the problem. Regardless of what the Romanians in Oslo has or has not done, they are still human beings, but they are not treated as such. It breaks my heart to see this happening, every day, in a country that supposedly is the world’s best place to live.


Not enough hours! said...

I think it is a brilliant post, Mari. A lot of thought has obviously gone into it, and I like that you neither romanticise the plight of the Romanians, nor condemn them for inflicting themselves on an economy they have no intention of contributing to.

And to me, the parallels are striking. Urban India faces the same problems as Norway- people from rural areas are constantly coming to the already overcrowded cities in search of a livelihood - the only differnce is that the city coudl not survive withotu them, adn yet we refuse to acknowledge that debt.

Wish there were solutions. But I guess people like you thinking and writing is a step in the right direction.

Cruella Collett said...

Natasha - I am very relieved that you think so. It was important for me to get my point across, and doing it the right way. It is also interesting how this problem has parallels in India - I never thought about that. I guess migration caused by poverty and difficult social conditions takes place in many parts of the world. And sadly, the easy solutions are nowhere to be found.

Watery Tart said...

Wow! I am truly impressed at your approach to both see the trouble, and see all the REASONS for the failure of there to be a solution. It's such a hard issue, isn't it? It surprises me a little that Norway has no employment requirement of immigrants, though, as you said, i guess they are just visiting.

It's such a contrary idea to me... Romanian accordian players being beggars... I mean I know a lot of people play music on corners in a lot of places (buskers, as the Scots call them... erm... and Leanne... Leanne calls them that, too)

I agree with you that the solution must be in some SYSTEM. I suspect the criminals among them use a little coersion (and possibly do a little feeding of) the plain old beggars because it helps them hide in plain sight. And who can blame people who are just trying to eat and survive for giving in/accepting protection/or taking food. If those people had... say simple housing with a bunk, a shower and regular meals though, they wouldn't be nearly so dependent on the people who SHOULDN'T be there (the criminals)

Marjorie said...

I see a lot of the same problems with Mexican immigrants here. Of course, the problem is really amplified by the fact that human smugglers, trafficers, and drug lords are thrown into the mix.

Cruella Collett said...

Tami - Norway does have employment requirements for immigrants, but since these are visitor and since they are from a country withint the European Union (which Norway isn't a member of, but we still follow most of their rules, or whatever...), it's a different matter. Besides, most people can visit most countries for up till 3 months without a visa (they are considered tourists), and seeing as Norway have open borders to Sweden and Finland, there is very little possibility for controlling who enters when, really.

Marjorie - we sadly have some problems with trafficking and drug smugling here as well, but that is (as far as I know) not connected with these people. It is sad, though, that migration often brings with it so many issues like these, because it really can be such a fruitful and positive thing!

Anonymous said...

Very thought provoking, with an appreciation of the complexities of the problem..

We have similar difficulties in Australia with "boat people" - Afghanis, Somalies and other people fleeing war torn countries. There is no easy solution, but there surely must be a more humanitarian one.

I've been working with some Somali men who have had no schooling at all, lived in camps all their lives in different countries, and are now enrolled in courses that assume a basic understanding of business operations. Some of these men had never seen a computer till they were 30 years old, and had never seen an office.

They are trying so hard, but with limited English (or Australian in this case) and not the remotest appreciation of business protocol, how can they possibly break into the world of work here?

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