‘Laws against the poor’ see 29 people arraigned for begging or vagrancy in last three years

Poor people, move along...

So far by-laws introduced against loitering in Birkirkara and Hamrun – defined as the “persistent presence” of people in any public spaces – have not resulted in any people being charged by the police
So far by-laws introduced against loitering in Birkirkara and Hamrun – defined as the “persistent presence” of people in any public spaces – have not resulted in any people being charged by the police

The archaic laws against begging and vagrancy have resulted in the arraignment of 29 people between 2016 and 2019, of which nine were Maltese nationals.  

‘Living a vagrant and idle life’ has been listed as a contravention against public order in the Maltese criminal code since 1899, and this part of the law has not been amended since 1918.

78% of those charged under this law between 2016 and 2018 were non-Maltese nationals. A total of 18 persons were arraigned for this contravention in the same period.

Any person who in a “public place importunes any person to beg alms” is also liable to prosecution. Five Maltese nationals and six foreigners were charged by the police for this offence between 2016 and 2018. The prohibition on begging dates back to 1966 and was never removed from the Maltese criminal code.

One recent case reported by newspaper Illum involved a 56-year-old man who was arraigned for begging for 50 cents to buy a cup of tea.

Vagrancy

  Maltese Foreigners
2016 2 4
2017 1 7
2018 1 3
Total 4 14

Begging

  Maltese Foreigners
2016 1 2
2017 1 4
2018 3 0
Total 5 6

In 2017 a homeless and physically disabled man from Romania was arrested for importuning passers-by, and fined €58 for begging for alms in the streets. In the same year, a homeless beggar also hailing from Romania, was jailed for ten days for begging for alms in Valletta.

So far by-laws introduced against loitering in Birkirkara and Hamrun – defined as the “persistent presence” of people in any public spaces – have not resulted in any people being charged by the police. All five people charged by the police for loitering in Marsa, in the past three years before and after the introduction of the by-law, were Maltese.

A spokesperson for the police acknowledged that there is no clear definition and defined policy of these by-laws, but it is understood that this “refers to the presence of a person in the same spot doing nothing for a substantial period of time”.

Laws against vagrancy in Europe mostly date back to the 19th century in a period characterised by mass migration from rural areas to the industrial heartlands, thus resulting in the increase of the number of urban poor who were regarded as a nuisance for the rich. In the UK, the Vagrancy Act of 1824 makes it an offence to sleep rough or beg. But begging was effectively decriminalised in 1981.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, most EU countries decriminalised vagrancy at national level.

Apart from Malta only four countries include an explicit ban on begging in their national legislation: Greece, Hungary, Italy and Romania. In France, Italy, Germany and Scotland, courts have ruled that it is unconstitutional to ban begging on a national level.

However, a new trend of local laws aimed at forcing marginalised groups to ‘move on’ from public spaces has emerged.

This trend was denounced by the European Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks who, in 2015, appealed for the repeal of such regulations arguing that “the criminalisation of poverty hides problems from the public view” and undermines efforts to improve the living conditions of marginalised groups like the Roma  “who are stigmatised and discriminated against.”

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