Amnesty International has called on the French government to end the stigmatization of Roma and Travellers (Gens du Voyages) in France, as the authorities continue to dismantle around 300 irregular camps and return hundreds of people to Romania and Bulgaria.
Around 280 Roma were returned to their country of origin on Thursday, in addition to the 216 returned on 19 and 20 August. According to the French Minister of Immigration Eric Besson, around 800 Roma are to be returned by the end of August.
The measures followed a special ministerial meeting in July to discuss "problems related to the behaviour of certain Roma and Travellers in France".
During the meeting, French President Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly referred to irregular camps inhabited by Roma as "sources of criminality", allegedly including child exploitation and prostitution.
"French officials should be working to fight discrimination, rather than making inflammatory statements that link entire communities to alleged criminality and may lead to even further discrimination against Roma and Travellers," said David Diaz-Jogeix, Deputy Director of Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia programme.
"Under no circumstances should anyone be returned or expelled simply because they are Roma."
In July, before the evictions started, around 20,000 Roma from Eastern and Central Europe were estimated to be residing in France, many of them in unauthorized camps.
Members of France's Traveller communities, the majority of whom are French citizens, have also been targeted by the announcement to close 300 irregular camps.
Around 400,000 itinerant French Travellers are already subject to discriminatory requirements to report periodically to the police and to be registered with a municipality for three years before acquiring the right to vote.
Under French law, all municipalities with more than 5,000 inhabitants must establish authorized halting sites for Travellers.
In April 2009 only 25 per cent of the municipalities had done so, resulting in an increase in the number of Travellers living in unauthorized halting sites.
"Instead of scapegoating Roma and Travellers, France should focus on fully implementing its own legislation and provide adequate halting sites and protection of the housing rights of all," said David Diaz-Jogeix.
Under international human rights law, the French authorities are obliged to guarantee the rights of all persons, including Roma and Travellers, to adequate housing. They cannot evict anyone from their home, even if it is in an irregular settlement, unless all other alternatives have been exhausted and they have consulted all affected residents.
Evictions can only be carried out when appropriate procedural protections are in place; adequate alternative accommodation provided; and relocated residents offered compensation for all losses.
Amnesty International has urged the French authorities to remove any provisions of French law which are discriminatory against Travellers, such as requiring them to carry travel permits and restricting their voting rights.