HELSINKI (Reuters) - Aurelia no longer brings her four-year-old daughter with her to beg on the streets of Finland's capital Helsinki. The 35-year-old Roma is too scared the little girl will be taken from her and put in foster care.
Finland is cracking down on Roma, or gypsies, who beg with their children, threatening to send mothers and children back to their country of origin or to take the children into foster care.
The aim, authorities say, is to protect the children.
But human rights groups say the move, introduced at the end of 2007, is one of Europe's toughest anti-Roma measures to date, and constitutes a form of blackmail that divides families rather than protecting them.
Finland is not alone in introducing measures which critics say discriminate against Roma. The European Union executive has urged member states to offer better opportunities to Roma, who are often not given equal chances to advance socially.
Eastern Europe's estimated 9-12 million Roma are the poorest sector in society in the region, and many have fled to richer, western states in search of a better life. But, often, they have only found neglect, discrimination and crushing poverty.
In Italy, the government was harshly criticized over a draft plan to fingerprint Roma people, including children, as part of a crackdown on crime, which many Italians blame on immigrants.
Critics said the proposed measure amounted to ethnic discrimination and a violation of EU rules. Italy has now said all citizens may have to be fingerprinted, in a move to defuse the criticism.
Finland's Minister for Migration and EU Affairs Astrid Thors defended her country's stance, saying authorities had to react if children were in danger.
"We are trying to act in the best interest of the child -- It might be problematic, but it is also very good that people coming here know that this is the rule," she said.
Aurelia, who declined to give her last name, still begs but takings are down since she stopped bringing her daughter.
"Begging is still better than going hungry where I am from," she said, squatting behind her empty plastic cup on a sidewalk near Helsinki's railway station.
"Some of my friends left because they heard that their children might be taken away. I have no choice. I have no better way of supporting my family back home."
The government estimates around 12,000 Roma live in Finland. Most are descended from the Kalo group of Roma, whose members have lived in Finland for centuries and who are also found in Spain and Italy.
The Roma beggars, who've arrived in Finland since early last year, came from Romania and Bulgaria after those two countries had joined the European Union in January that year.
While the number of Roma beggars in Finland is still small -- fewer than 100 according to one interior ministry study -- police said they were becoming more organized and more aggressive, sometimes arriving in hired mini-buses for their day's work in Helsinki.
Those recently arrived often sleep in tents or in makeshift communities on highway medians and rarely have access to healthcare to take care of their families.
By law, these Roma cannot be deported, unless they commit a serious crime. Begging is not illegal.
When Roma beggars, an ubiquitous presence in the Norwegian capital Oslo, first appeared on Helsinki's streets last year, it caused a stir in the local media and highlighted a certain intolerance towards foreigners.
The Roma are not the only group to have faced discrimination in Finland, where people have often been hostile towards newcomers until recent signs that the economy would suffer if the country did not adopt a more welcoming approach.
With a harsh climate and a language spoken only by a few, Finland is now trying to attract immigrants to shore up an economy weakened by Europe's fastest ageing population and a shrinking labor force.
The population of Finland is around 5.3 million and there are around 122,000 foreigners, mainly from Russia and Estonia.
But the presence of children on the streets has angered some Finns.
Outi Parkkinen, a mother who lives in Helsinki, said she could not help apportioning blame after seeing infants sleeping on the street in below-zero temperatures.
"People say Finland is not open to immigration whenever the talk about the Roma comes up. Should we just let them roam and risk that some of these kids might die?" she asked.
Thors said Romania must take responsibility for integrating its nomadic minority and preventing thousands of people from flooding other European cities.
Other Nordic states have also started to crack down, especially since the number of Roma beggars has risen since 2007.
Complaints about aggressive panhandling in Oslo prompted Norwegian politicians to discuss a ban on begging last year.
Although that proposal failed, it is again being openly debated after new groups of Roma beggars, mainly from Romania, began to arrive in Europe's most expensive city.
Around five years ago, Denmark sought to put Roma children into special classes and to withdraw unemployment benefits from Roma parents if their children did not attend school. Both practices were deemed illegal and have since ceased.
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Additional reporting by Sakari Suoninen and Sami Torma in Helsinki, Kim McLaughlin in Copenhagen, Adam Cox in Stockholm and John Acher in Oslo; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile