France's unwanted Roma
- 13 February 2014
- From the section Magazine
France has possibly the harshest policy in Europe towards Roma immigrants. Most live in camps that are regularly demolished by police - and then rebuilt. Every year thousands are deported, but the overall number in the country remains the same.
Before dawn on a winter's morning police came to destroy Alex's home.
"They said: 'Everybody out; we're going to smash this camp.' They gave us half an hour to collect our things," the 18-year-old recalls.
The 15 Roma families living in a wood outside Paris were no match for the 100-odd riot police deployed to evict them.
Diggers swung into action. Within an hour nothing remained of the encampment. Large holes had been dug across the site to stop anyone settling there again.
Asked how it feels to see the hut he had built razed to the ground, Alex shrugs: "Nothing. I've been through this many times."
Like most of the estimated 20,000 ethnic Roma living in France, Alex comes from Romania. And like most, he has been expelled from one squalid camp to the next for years.
Hundreds of thousands of Roma - mostly from Romania and Bulgaria - have moved to Western Europe since the 1990s. Widely perceived as scroungers and thieves, they are rarely made welcome.
But they come under a particular kind of pressure in France. Their illegal camps - such as the one Alex occupied in Champs-sur-Marne, east of Paris - are systematically destroyed by authorities.
According to the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), 19,300 Roma people were evicted across France last year - more than double the 2012 figure.
"They don't know from one minute to the next if they're going to get evicted," says Gabriela Hrabanova, of the European Roma Grassroots Organisations Network.
In their countries of origin, Roma people face widespread discrimination but are at least allowed to settle in one place. "Evictions are very rare in Eastern Europe," Hrabanova notes.
Many of the evicted Roma end up being deported - almost 11,000 Romanian nationals were deported from France last year, more than any other immigrant group. Being a citizen of a European Union country offers little protection as EU law allows a member country to expel people who are deemed a burden on its social system.
In September Interior Minister Manuel Valls said that Roma people have "lifestyles that are very different from ours" and that "their destiny is to return to Romania or Bulgaria".
Philippe Goosens of the European Association for the Defence of Human Rights points out that France is the only EU country that has such a "policy of rejection".
Officials deny targeting an ethnic group, however. The government insists it is only enforcing the law, destroying illegal settlements on orders from judges.
Champs-sur-Marne alone has seen more than 20 camp demolitions in the past 18 months, says local activist Francois Loret.
One aim of such operations is to remove unsightly, unsafe, and unsanitary sites that have no water or electricity. However, Loret and others point out that the exercise is self-defeating. As soon as police tear down one camp, another is built nearby. Alex and his neighbours are now busy building another hut a few hundred metres from the last.
"They live in increasingly precarious living conditions that prevent them for integrating locally," says ethnologist Martin Olivera. "They are being maintained in a nomadic way of life they have not chosen."
Alex says he would love to have a permanent home, but for that he would need a proper job.
At present, like most men in the camps, Alex and his friend Rabu make a living going through people's rubbish. Every morning they set off before bins are collected and search for scrap metal, which they then sell for 10 cents a kilo.
In a good week they make 50 euros (£40; $70) - more than they would earn in Romania.
Getting proper work is difficult for a number of reasons. Alex says he would do any job he could find, but has had no luck. Rabu says employers lose interest as soon as he says he is Romanian.
Like most Roma youths, they have not been to school in France, which is a drawback. Many teenagers would like to get an education, but face serious obstacles.
Fifteen-year-old Ianut said he tried to enrol in school so that he would be able to "speak good French and find a job" but was turned down.
Often schools reject Roma because local authorities are reluctant to recognise them as residents, says Francois Loret. Without official residency, they are not entitled to any social benefits beyond basic health care - and many struggle to secure even that.
Officials argue that they are bearing the brunt of a problem that is beyond their limited capacities. It's a problem that should be dealt with at international not local level, says Marc Nectar, who is responsible for Roma policy in Val-de-Marne, the area where Champs is located.
Camps typically spring up in deprived suburbs, where services are already stretched. Seine-Saint-Denis, just north of Paris, is France's poorest area. It is also the one with highest camp population.
Claude Reznik, an official in Montreuil-sous-Bois, Seine-Saint-Denis, notes that Roma arrive in families, and that this makes them more difficult to "absorb" than previous waves of immigrants.
South European or African men who came in the 1960s or 1970s, he notes, "were able to find a bed at friend's home, move elsewhere after getting a job, and then have their families join them".
Montreuil has taken steps to rehouse former camp families, but there is only so much it can do, Reznik says. "Some people have been on the waiting list for social housing for years," he points out. "How can you allow Roma people to get it first?"
In Champs-sur-Marne, as in many other places, some residents are pressing for tough action. A number recently petitioned the mayor asking for evictions to be accelerated.
A rapid survey of local opinion reveals a mixture of views about the Roma presence. Ingrid, 21, who studies at an osteopathy school next to the destroyed site, says it used to emit foul-smelling smoke.
Another osteopathy student says the road was a "tip".
Others are more relaxed. Florian Goyon, a history student, says he hardly notices the Roma.
Mohammed, a 28-year-old Tunisian immigrant, suspects many make a living stealing phones, but he does not want to see them evicted. "It's not right to throw kids out in the cold," he says.
The Roma themselves do not report serious tensions with locals. "We do not have a problem with French people - only police," says a Romanian who calls himself Boy. "They accuse us of stealing, but we steal nothing."
Guillaume Lardanchet of Hors La Rue, a Montreuil-based group that helps troubled immigrant children, agrees that Roma youths are sometimes involved in crime. This is hardly surprising as they are more likely to be on the street than in schools.
But, he adds, the problem is often exaggerated. Police figures suggest that 200-300 camp children are engaged in criminal activity across France, out of a total of 6,000. "The overwhelming majority of Roma kids stay out of trouble," Mr Lardanchet says.
Some think the prospects for France's Roma immigrants could improve with the end of the "transition regime" that restricted access to jobs for Romanian and Bulgarian citizens.
As of 1 January, they have no longer needed a residency permit to work in France.
But the policies that give rise to the cycle of evictions and deportations remain in place.