126 foreign nationals came to Belfast to beg in the run-up to Christmas before going home
The majority of beggars in Belfast city centre over Christmas were foreign nationals who came here solely to beg, before returning to their home country, the PSNI has said.
In the run-up to Christmas, 126 foreign nationals came to the attention of police in the city centre for begging. None of them were homeless.
According to police they stayed in multiple occupancy housing before returning to their home country after the Christmas period.
"Local knowledge and experience of police officers who work in Belfast city centre, have ascertained that the majority of foreign national persons who are engaged in begging come to Northern Ireland over a three or four-month period in the run-up to and over the Christmas period," the Chief Constable George Hamilton told the Northern Ireland Policing Board. He added: "They stay in multiple occupancy housing and arrive here solely to beg. They then return to their home country. This trend started in 2014."
Police statistics show that from October to December last year, 146 people were reported to police for begging in Belfast city centre. Twenty were local people, four of whom were homeless. The remaining 126 were foreign nationals.
The PSNI imposed a number of sanctions including advice and warning, discretionary disposals, reports to the PPS and charging. Mr Hamilton said that many of the local people who beg are most often addicted to drugs or alcohol and beg to feed their addiction.
He also told the Policing Board that the PSNI is investigating "hearsay" reports that some of the street begging by foreign nationals was being organised by criminal gangs.
"There are suggestions that there is an organised element amongst the foreign national persons engaged in begging. However, to date, most of the information is hearsay and investigations continue into this aspect," he said.
Mr Hamilton continued that there are no reports or suggestions that any of the begging involving local people is organised.
Belfast city centre would experience the highest number of incidents of begging, however other shopping towns like Lisburn and Bangor are also affected, Mr Hamilton said.
According to the police, October to December would see the highest number of reported incidents of begging.
"This would reflect the higher footfall figures in the run-up to Christmas with shopping activity and a lively night time economy," added Mr Hamilton.
Belfast councillor Jim Rodgers claimed street begging in the city was "running out of control".
"It is becoming a very serious problem and causes a bad impression for visitors. It is a bad image for our capital city," said Mr Rodgers.
"I understand there are people down and out who really do need help, but it seems that the vast majority are just taking advantage of the public's generosity.
"It is like an epidemic and is springing up everywhere across the city centre."