STOCKHOLM – The evacuation of a squalid Roma camp this week has forced Sweden to come to terms with a troubling new reality: For the first time in generations, the egalitarian welfare nation is witnessing people living in abject poverty, without basic amenities such as electricity and running water.
They sleep on sidewalks, wrapped in blankets on cardboard boxes or in makeshift homes made of plywood, metal and sheets of plastic. They eke out a living by panhandling and recycling bottles and cans.
Until recently, Swedes had only seen such misery up close on foreign travels or in black-and-white photos from the 19th century, before the country became a semi-socialist society with a famously small gap between rich and poor.
Now there are beggars on street corners in major cities and small towns alike. Many are Roma, also known as Gypsies, from Eastern Europe who previously lived in Mediterranean countries but moved north as the financial situation there got worse.
"We are not used to having to see this type of deep poverty. We've worked methodically for the past 100 years to get rid of it," said Martin Valfridsson, who was appointed by the government this year to coordinate efforts to deal with the issue.
He said "vulnerable EU citizens" — Swedish authorities avoid using ethnic labels — started coming to Sweden in 2012 and their numbers rose sharply last year. Though there are no hard statistics, he said they now number around 4,500, significantly more than in neighboring countries.
The growing number of beggars has become a pressing issue for Sweden as it coincides with record flows of migrants from the Middle East and Africa. Sweden's welcome is under strain, with nearly 200,000 asylum-seekers expected this year. Relative to population size — Sweden has 9.7 million people — no other EU country comes close.
Unlike the asylum-seeker, who are housed in government-run refugee shelters, the Roma mostly fend for themselves. As EU citizens they don't qualify for asylum, which is reserved for refugees fleeing war and persecution.
And they're not protected by Sweden's generous welfare system because they're considered visitors, not residents. They're only eligible for emergency aid including a few days of food and housing at homeless shelters and assistance to return home.
Many don't even want that, avoiding authorities as much as they can. They set up camp in abandoned plots of land or in parks, often with the intent to go back home — or to another country — in a few months. With competition from other beggars increasing and the Swedish will to give apparently declining, some are now turning around sooner.
"I heard from others it was easier to earn money here," said Maria Carmen, a 38-year-old Roma woman from Romania who came to Sweden two weeks ago after spending five years in Spain. "But when we got here, nothing."
Her clothes reeking from chilly nights spent in a city park, she looked out of place in Stockholm's posh diplomatic district, where she was searching for the Romanian Embassy. She said she hoped embassy staff could replace the passport she had lost and help her pay for a bus ticket back to Bucharest and her six children.
Begging is not illegal in Sweden and the Roma say the police mostly leave them alone, unlike in many other European countries.
But Swedes are finding themselves conflicted between their culture of compassion and their desire to keep things tidy.
An emotional debate has arisen about whether giving money to beggars actually does them any good, an age-old argument in other countries where deep poverty never ceased to be part of urban life.
There have also been isolated cases of people attacking beggars on the street.
In August, a far-right opposition party placed controversial ads in the Stockholm subway apologizing to foreign tourists for "the mess" caused by the beggars. Angry protesters tore them down, underscoring how polarizing the issue has become in Sweden.
But even Swedes sympathetic to the beggars are concerned about a return of slums in a country that hasn't seen any for more than 100 years.
Things came to head this week in the southern city of Malmo, where about 200 Roma had set up a camp without permission in an abandoned industrial lot. For Kafka-esque bureaucratic reasons, the property owner wasn't able to evict them (authorities demanded he identify each one of them first even though he had no realistic way of doing that).
As months went by, it became a semi-permanent settlement, similar to Roma camps in Romania and Bulgaria. Trash piled up between the ramshackle homes. Neighbors complained as the stench of human waste and toxic bonfires spread in the area.
Finally city authorities intervened, declaring the camp hazardous to the environment and public health. In a pre-dawn raid on Tuesday, police evicted the camp-dwellers as well as dozens of demonstrators who had demanded the Roma be allowed to stay.
The scenes were reminiscent of a French crackdown on illegal Roma settlements in 2010, which at the time was criticized by Swedish government officials.
Now Swedish authorities say the law is the law and they cannot make exceptions for Roma.
"Sweden has for a very long time worked to develop laws and rules surrounding building permits and housing standards," said Veronica Wolgast-Karlberg, acting head of Stockholm's social services. "You just cannot live outside of those rules. It's about safety and security."
Stressing that there are no official statistics, she said that an estimated 650 people live in 60 small camps scattered across Stockholm.
Swedish authorities have appealed to Romania and Bulgaria to improve the conditions for Roma, so that they don't need to go abroad to beg.
Valfridsson, the national coordinator, said that the best way for Swedes to contribute is to support efforts to help the beggars in their home countries, "not dropping coins in a cup."
Associated Press writer Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania, contributed to this report.