A woman begging. Photo: APA/BARBARA GINDL
The Tyrolean branch of the Freedom Party (FPÖ) waded into the debate over 'beggar mischief' in Innsbruck with an unusual approach. They hired a private detective to investigate the activity of the city's beggars, and claimed to have confirmed a few suspicions.
Party chairman Mark Abwerzger announced the results of the investigation on Tuesday morning in a press conference, including a detailed report and extensive photographic material.
After a two-month investigation, they have found "conclusive evidence" that begging was operated on a clearly commercial scale in the Tyrolean capital.
Abwerzger, a local councillor and former lawyer, suggested that those responsible should be prosecuted in accordance with the Tyrolean Regional Police Act.
He explained that there was a hierarchical organization in place in the city that had at peak times up to 17 beggars working in a coordinated way throughout the state capital.
Overseers would distribute the beggars to key points around Innsbruck, where they would start their activity. "The people are forced to go begging," said the regional FPÖ leader.
At the end of the day, the beggars were collected by several different vehicles, and taken to a bus, where they would hand over their 'earnings'. Each beggar was allowed to keep between €80 to €90 per day. In total, the collective earnings of the team would amount to "well over €20,000 per month", explained Abwerzger.
Many of the beggars pretended to have physical infirmities - in some cases, this was caused by wearing too-tight shoes, he said. Later in the evening, some of the 'cripples' were seen to be happily riding around on scooters.
The Freedom Party chairman suggested that such behaviour was clearly fraudulent, for which many legal precedents existed.
Freedom Party Parliamentary Group Leader Rudi Federspiel, party spokesman on law and order issues, explained that "it is clearly a highly organized structure. The so-called cripples are not crippled. They even wear special shoes to appear to be in pain. I call upon the people - give the beggars nothing."
It was unlikely that any of those involved would be available as a witness to claim that they were trafficked, or forced into begging. However, he explained that the only conclusion that could be drawn is that there was a clear, "mafia-like" organization in place.
According to Federspiel, none of the beggars involved are locals. "Innsbruck and Tyrol should not be a social security office for Eastern European beggars", he said.
Tyrol's Bettellobby ('Begging Lobby') charity issued a statement which condemned the FPÖ's investigation as "contemptuous and disrespectful" and said that it had failed to provide sufficient evidence that organized begging existed on a large scale.
The statement added that begging bans, and spying on beggars, failed to address the real issue behind begging, which is poverty. It said that the FPÖ was drawing on long-held racist prejudices against people from Eastern Europe.
Both Abwerzger and Federspiel criticized the work of the police, saying that the "beggar mischief" in Innsbruck could be greatly reduced if existing laws were enforced. Since begging was merely an "administrative offence", police tended to overlook the problem.
Abwerzger suggested that the work of the organized gang of beggars should be prosecuted under the criminal code, and not under administrative law in future.
They would in any case forward the collected documents to the police or the state, both announced.
The fact that the party had resorted to hiring a private investigator, was defended by the FPÖ team, who said it was a case of "money well spent".
"If the government denies the existence of the problem, it is our fundamental duty to act here," said Abwerzger.