Vienna, 16 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Beggars from the Czech and Slovak Republics are traveling into Austria by the coach-load in organized groups in the hope of larger hand-outs from their wealthier neighbors in Vienna.
According to Austrian police, many of those involved belong to gangs of professional beggars who often arrive with children in tow and pre-written messages on cardboard asking for money in German. And, say Vienna public transport chiefs, the numbers are increasing.
The most common spots chosen to beg are busy underground stations, pedestrian zones and church steps in central Vienna.
City police spokesman Herbert Grolig said: "Czechs and Slovaks started appearing in Vienna to beg almost immediately after the Iron Curtain collapsed.
"We have no exact statistics but I'm sure there is organized begging because we get the occasional bus load of them arriving. Over the year we pick up about 30 of them in the first (central) district of Vienna but that's a small proportion of the true figure," he said.
There are few arrests because "humble begging" is legal. And although organized begging, like aggressive begging, is outlawed, it difficult to prove, said Grolig.
Vienna transport chief Martin Lichtenegger backed the police's findings. "We have noticed since the late summer an increase in the number of adults begging with children at their side in our underground stations. "We find ourselves driving Czech and Slovak beggars out of our main stations every day."
The plight of beggar children has caused concern in official circles, especially since the onset of a harsh winter. The Vienna council, along with public transport chiefs and child care specialists, recently agreed that children seen begging in underground stations would be reported to the city's child care workers and not simply ejected out into the cold, as had usually been the case before.
But where the children are supposed to be sent sometimes remains unclear In one recent case, a child spotted in an underground station was taken from its parent to a nearby crisis center. And in another, the child was taken to the police station along with its parent after a social worker intervened to stop a transport worker chasing the family out of the underground station.
A city hall spokesperson said: "If the children are suffering from hypothermia or are asleep we have to take them into care. That is the law. Any foreign children taken into care are only there for a couple of hours. Last time some children were here, a group of people they knew quickly came to pick them up and then they all left the country."
Some want to see tougher rules which would ban parents using children to beg. "Steps must be taken to stop people begging with children and if necessary the child should be taken away," said Renate Balic-Benzing, head of the local council's youth and family unit. "If the child is freezing or has been, for example, sedated, you have to consider whether that child wouldn't be better off in care. "And under the law we are allowed to take a child into care without applying for a court order." She added: "We do not like to see children being used by beggars to win people's sympathy, particularly when it has to do with organized begging."
After an increase in begging by adolescents in the early 1990's, a law banning aggressive begging was passed. In the center of Vienna, around five people a month are charged with this offense and have to pay up to 10,000 schillings ($1,000). Begging near to underground stations is usually forbidden in the by-laws and carries fines of up to 500 schillings ($50).
But others have criticized growing State intervention. Green party councilor Susanne Jerusalem is convinced children are worse off in the city's child care unit that out begging. "It's scandalous that children are taken away from their parents," she said. "Children running around on the streets and begging for money for the Red Cross or for funds for St Stephen's Cathderal is, however, apparently quite acceptable."