Gypsy streets of London

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 March, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 March, 2000, 12:00am

Gangs of highly organised beggars, mainly from Eastern Europe, are the latest problem facing commuters who travel to work on London's dilapidated transport system.

Police say the number of beggars on the capital's underground train system has shot up in the past six months. The majority are refugees waiting for their applications for asylum to be processed.

Chief Superintendent Steve Hotson, area commander for the London Underground, said the beggars were almost always women who dragged their children around after them to gain public sympathy.

'They divide up into small groups - often a mother with a young child, even a baby on the breast - and take up different patches around London, meeting up at the end of the day to divide the spoils,' Mr Hotson said.

Many passengers have complained. 'This is a social problem and we are working with a number of other agencies to try to find a solution,' Mr Hotson said.

Many of the beggars do not speak English but shove hand-written cards describing their calamities under the noses of passengers. Evidence suggests the beggars are becoming increasingly sophisticated and organising day trips to cities outside London, particularly to tourist centres such as Oxford. Others exploit the legal system by giving false personal details upon arrest to avoid prison.

The majority of the beggars arrested are Romanian gypsies, several thousand of whom arrived in Britain over the past few years seeking asylum from persecution elsewhere in Europe.

More than 60,000 people entered Britain last year and applied for asylum, adding to a backlog that has delayed applications for up to six years. The Kosovo crisis increased the numbers.

The British Government has pledged to cut the time taken to process the applications and has introduced new arrangements so that each case will be heard within six months.

But in the meantime the gypsies are not allowed to work and instead are provided with a small amount of cash and vouchers that they can exchange for food and other essentials.

Refugee groups claim many of the asylum seekers are forced to beg because the funds provided by the government are insufficient.

Aware of the increasing public disquiet, the government has promised to give the police more powers to clamp down on beggars. 'There is an increase in the number of gypsies from Eastern Europe on our streets who maintain that this is part of their traditional lifestyle,' Home Office Minister Paul Boateng said. 'Well, it isn't acceptable in this country.' Refugee Council chief executive Nick Hardwick said it was unfair to stigmatise all asylum seekers as human refuse who were forced to beg.

'To suggest that the behaviour of a tiny minority is typical of all asylum seekers is outrageous,' Mr Hardwick said.

'Instead of fuelling hatred we hope the government and police will start to show zero tolerance towards hostility against asylum seekers.

'Such hysteria whips up ill-informed hatred and resentment,' he said.