A few years ago the residents of Oslo, like their counterparts in many other Western European cities, began to notice the growing presence among them of people, apparently gypsies, who were not only begging on their streets – in the summer months, anyway – but were often extremely aggressive about it.
Before long it was reported that these people had come from Romania – and, one sometimes read, Bulgaria. Many of them were, it was further reported, being shipped to Oslo by the busload for no other purpose than to beg. Well, that’s not precisely true: the more able-bodied and fleet-footed among them were also doing quite a bit of stealing. Eventually there were also reports about the flats these people were living in. Dozens of them, apparently, were crowding into a few small rooms, where they left the remnants of their meals on the floor and, in addition, used the floor as a toilet.
While some Norwegians expressed concerned about this unpleasant new state of affairs, others mounted the barricades on behalf of this new wave of potential welfare clients. “’Gypsies treated as garbage,’” thundered an October 2011 headline in Aftenposten, quoting the head of the Anti-Racist Center (a curious claim, given that the new arrivals seemed to specialize in turning every place they inhabited for any length of time into a rubbish tip).
This summer, according to Aftenposten, about two thousand gypsies have made their way to Oslo, a city of about half a million. “Even though many have rap sheets,” the same newspaper informs us, “the police cannot send them out of the country unless they are arrested for criminal offenses in Norway.” Many of them, to be sure, have been interviewed by the police in connection with various transgressions – and have been quick to accuse the cops of harassment.
In response to this “harassment,” the gypsy community sought “refuge” earlier this month at Sofienberg Church, which is set in a mid-sized park in a middle-class neighborhood near downtown Oslo. At this time of year, the park is generally the setting for family barbecues, frisbee-playing, and the like. As of July 9, however, it was a huge tent camp inhabited by a couple of hundred gypsies. One of them, Opra Costica, defiantly spelled things out to reporters: “If you give me 100,000 kroner I’ll go. But not without it. You should give a million kroner to each of the families who are here in Sofienberg. A million kroner is nothing in Norway.” (At the moment, a million Norwegian kroner is equivalent to about $163,000.)
The establishment of this camp in Sofienberg Park gave the usual journalistic hacks the opportunity to spew out the usual inane rhetoric: “The gypsies’ situation can only be understood in a larger political perspective, and against the background of a history full of discrimination, oppression, and marginalization. They live among us, and we are being put to the test. Can we treat gypsies, too, as people?” Those lines were penned by Ingrid Brekke, Aftenposten‘s correspondent in Berlin, who – noting that that city, too, is a summer destination for a great many gypsy beggars – found it appropriate to imply a connection between the Nazis’ murder of gypsies and the reluctance of many Western Europeans to roll out the red carpet for these summertime tourists.
Anyway, the gypsy camp in Sofienberg made huge headlines – and put Norwegian officialdom in a pickle. After all, it was almost exactly a year since Anders Behring Breivik, motivated by a hostility to mass Muslim immigration, murdered 69 people – an atrocity which led virtually every public figure in the country to piously reaffirm Norway’s love of diversity and its unbounded respect for other cultures. Now this. What to do? There were murmurs here and there that hinted at buck-passing: this isn’t the church’s problem, but the police department’s. Or: this is a matter for the national government, not local officials, to deal with. On July 12, the acting bishop of Oslo said he felt the church was being “used.” “This Is Foreign Policy, Not Local Politics,” read the headline on a July 13 op-ed by the head of Oslo’s city council.