Drunk pauper sleeping on a cardboard on a street

Begging and the free movement of poverty

Sarah Walker

The free movement of poverty and EU member states attempts to curtail this is a thread which looms large in the project Begging, Work and Citizenship funded by Oxford University’s John Fell fund, a pilot project which seeks to explore these themes through the lens of the beggar. As part of the project a small scale qualitative research project was conducted with key actors working at policy level and on the front line with beggars (e.g. outreach workers, local authority homelessness and community safety teams, police), focusing on a London borough with high rates of begging. The interviews are still being analysed and findings will be out in spring next year. However, our initial findings show some interesting emerging themes.

Increasingly, anti-begging legislation is being used across Europe to control the mobility of unwanted populations, such as poor migrants (Fekete, 2014). Richer member states of the European Economic Area (EEA), such as Sweden, Norway, and the UK have directly linked begging with EU migrant populations and have explicitly called for or tried to implement begging legislation specifically targeted at migrant populations. While the free movement of labour is encouraged under the EU framework, there is currently little regulation in place to address the free movement of poverty (Djuve et al., 2015).

Under Directive (2004/38/EC) – usually referred to as the free movement directive, EEA citizens have the right of free movement and residence across the European Economic Area with no conditions on their stay for the first three months. After this, residence is contingent upon them not becoming an ‘undue burden’ on the country of residence.  Across the EU, mobile EU citizens who are not engaged in the labour market and who are a ‘burden’ on the host state, may lose their right of residence and become subject to removal after the initial three months. Those who are visible beggars, like vagrants in the past, may be ‘moved on’ and are rendered ‘deportable subjects’ (De Genova, 2002).

According to several of our respondents, Romanian Roma are travelling to wealthier EU member states under free movement rules to engage in begging and other forms of petty crime. They then move on to another member state before the expiration of their three month residence period. The mobility of the Roma, seen as purposefully travelling to beg and abusing, rather than exercising, their Treaty rights, is held to be suspect. As such, the response is framed within social disorder narratives: it is not good for the Roma and certainly not good for London (tourism, tourists or local businesses). Means to curtail and regulate it are being sought.

At present, begging is illegal under the 1824 Vagrancy Act, which is still in force in England and Wales (but not Scotland). Other tools of governance include the ‘Anti-social Behaviour Order’ (ASBO), introduced by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. These civil orders, which last for a minimum of two years, can prohibit an offender from specific anti-social acts (‘behavioural’ conditions) and/or entering defined areas (‘geographical’ conditions). More recently, a new range of measures were introduced under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act implemented in October 2014. This includes ‘public spaces protection orders’ (PSPOs), which allow councils to ban any activity which they judge to have a ‘detrimental effect’ on the ‘quality of life’ of an area.

Enforcement actions then often lead to widespread geo­graphical displacement of street activity from the ‘prime’ urban spaces which are used and valued by mainstream society to ‘marginal’ spaces, which are not (Johnsen & Fitzpatrick, 2010: 1709). Those found begging are thus both sociologically and geographically marginalised. The spaces the beggar frequents and the borders crossed are regulated and controlled at different levels, from the micro-level of the London borough to the global. In the case of the Roma, regulation is more complicated and is currently seen as involving mainly temporary displacement; an unsatisfactory response.

Through focusing on ‘social disorder, attention is drawn away from the structural issues behind the need to beg. As other scholars have found, begging is one of a number of informal economic activities that assist those on the margins to get by (Dean, 1999). A recent study of street work in Scandinavia found that Roma migrants were more likely to beg than non-Roma migrants, and hold that this is due to structural factors such as poverty, marginalisation and a lack of formal education and basic skills, particularly evident in the Roma: “The beggars, in other words, appear to be the least successful in actually obtaining casual work or finding other means of earning an income” (Djuve et al., 2015: 60). Most of the migrant street workers in the study perceived themselves as labour migrants, and would prefer to have jobs (Ibid.).

With control of public space understood as the control of ‘disorder’, immigration policies and securitization discourses feed into control measures around public space (Tosi, 2007). The figure of the beggar and legislation against him/ her epitomises this. Framed within social disorder narratives, the uncivil behaviour of the beggar is construed as a threat (ibid.). Such discourses have deep historical roots relating to unwanted populations (also Anderson, 2013). The research will be out in spring next year and will shed further light on notions of exclusion and the limitations of citizenship, both national and European, via the lens of the beggar.


Anderson, B. (2013) Us and them? The Dangerous Politics of Immigration Control. Oxford University Press

Dean, H. (1999) Begging Questions: street level economic activity and social policy failure, Bristol: The Policy Press

De Genova, N. (2002) ‘Migrant ‘illegality’ and deportability in everyday life’ Annual Review of Anthropology 31

Djuve, A. B., Friberg, J. H., Tyldum, G. and Zhang, H. (2015) When poverty meets affluence, Oslo: FAFO report. Available here.

Fekete, L. (2014) ‘Europe against the Roma’, Race & Class Vol. 55(3)

Johnsen, S.  & Fitzpatrick, S. (2010) ‘Revanchist Sanitisation or Coercive Care? The Use of Enforcement to Combat Begging, Street Drinking and Rough Sleeping in England’, Urban Studies 43

Tosi, A. (2007) Homelessness and the Control of Public Spaces – Criminalising the Poor? European Journal of Homelessness 1, pp. 225–36.


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