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Begging. Stock photo from Pixabay/ Basel, Switzerland, Wikipedia

Swiss town finds new solution against beggars

The city of Basel offers a travel voucher to beggars who, in exchange, undertake not to return to the city for at least a certain period of time under penalty of permanent expulsion from the country.

Published: May 5, 2021, 9:33 am

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    The migration service of the city of Basel now offers a travel voucher as well as a donation of 20 Swiss francs (18 euros) to any beggar who wishes, reported Swiss media.

    The traveller’s check allows the recipient to travel free of charge to a European destination by train. In return, beneficiaries must agree in writing not to return to Switzerland, at least for a certain period of time. If they are caught again in Switzerland, they risk final expulsion from the country.

    According to the media, around thirty people, most of them from Romania, have already announced themselves willing to accept the deal.

    Several Swiss cantons adopt a strict approach towards beggars, which is frowned upon by European institutions. At the beginning of 2021, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) condemned Switzerland, because of a Romanian who had been fined 500 francs (456 euros) for begging in Geneva. She was then placed in pre-trial detention for five days because she could not pay the fine.

    In the judgment on January 19, the Strasbourg Court noted that the applicant, Violeta-Sibianca Lăcătuş, who belongs to the Roma community, was highly vulnerable, and by depriving her of the ability to beg, the Swiss government had deprived her of her means of subsistence.

    The ECHR ruled that the Swiss penalty of a fine of 500 Swiss francs or a five-day custodial sentence for begging in public places was a disproportionate interference with the exercise of the applicant’s right to a private life. The applicant was even awarded €922 as compensation. It also cited the opinion of United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights that measures to make poverty less visible to attract investment are not legitimate with regard to human rights.

    This is a curious decision, because in the Grand Chamber’s ruling in Garib versus the Netherlands, the court essentially found that a measure intended to gentrify the inner city of Rotterdam by prohibiting low-income residents from living in some areas did not violate the ECHR.

    The Swiss government had argued that these criminal sanctions were necessary in order to stop the exploitation of those in poverty by criminal networks. It invoked public order and safety, the economic well-being of the country, and the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. It furthermore argued that people who beg harass passers-by, bother restaurant patrons, and dissuade shoppers, and potentially incite violent reactions from those they inconvenience. Additionally, the government cited the potential harm to the tourist attractiveness of the city of Geneva.

    There is also a blanket ban on begging in the UK: In England and Wales, begging and rough sleeping are criminal offences punishable by a fine under the Vagrancy Act 1824, suggesting a firm attitude towards beggars.

    Following this decision of the ECHR, the Geneva public prosecutor suspended the application of the law on begging which entered into force in 2008.

    In April 2021, the authorities of the canton of Neuchâtel also clarified in a begging provision that the judgment of the ECHR should be taken into account. Thus, begging remains authorized in the canton in emergency or occasional cases and is condemned only when it becomes “a habit”.

    However, the Attorney General has planned to maintain a fine of 500 francs against those who beg, especially children or vulnerable people.

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