05 January 2011
French authorities must stop stigmatizing the Roma

Hundreds of marginalized Romanian and Bulgarian Roma families in France face being left without adequate shelter this winter as they face an ongoing threat of eviction from their camps.

Anti-Roma sentiment and discriminatory practices by French public officials have been widespread and have intensified during 2010.

In July, President Nicolas Sarkozy referred to ‘irregular’ Roma camps as “sources of illegal trafficking, profoundly degrading living conditions, [and] exploitation of children for the purposes of begging, prostitution and criminality”. At a ministerial meeting, he ordered the dismantling of such sites “to proceed within… three months” and called for legislative reforms to speed the process of removing Roma from France.

On 5 August, the French Ministry of the Interior issued a policy circular to all local authorities, targeting Roma camps as a “priority” to be dismantled. The 5 August circular followed earlier instructions issued jointly by the Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Immigration, which laid out specific steps for local authorities and law enforcement to (i) dismantle illegal camps, (ii) identify inhabitants who were not French and who do not have regular immigration status, (iii) identify violations of public order, and (iv) then take measures to remove such inhabitants from France. Following public outcry about the discriminatory effect of targeting an ethnic group for a programme of evictions, the Ministry withdrew the 5 August circular which specifically targeted Roma, and replaced it, on 13 September, with an order to dismantle “all ‘illegal camps’” on French territory.

Even though the specifically discriminatory language of the 5 August circular has been withdrawn, the various existing policy instructions and circulars issued in 2010 appear, when taken together, to devote considerable effort to identifying illegal camps, dismantling them, and expelling their inhabitants from France where possible. These measures, when put into practice, appear to disproportionately target Roma from Romania and Bulgaria.

Concerns about discrimination against Roma in France have been raised by numerous international bodies and NGOs, including the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the European Commission and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg.

On his blog, Do not stigmatise Roma, Thomas Hammarberg wrote on 15 September 2010: “Repatriation of Roma EU citizens is now common in several European countries. France’s crackdown on crime has specifically targeted Roma from Romania and Bulgaria. Pushing Roma families between member states offers no solutions to any problems”.

Roma in France generally live in very poor conditions in camps that often lack electricity, water and sanitation. They struggle to access work, education and health care. The government’s rhetoric and actions have led to the further exclusion of Roma, isolated from the rest of society in camps built near highways, away from built-up areas and, at times, in the middle of woods. Many live in hiding and fear of being found, moved on and having to find new homes. Some of those evicted also face the prospect of being removed from France.

Christèle, a representative of the local NGO Imediat, assisting a Roma camp in Villeneuve-le-Roi, Paris, recently informed Amnesty International that living conditions were deterioriating with the arrival of winter.

The climate of stigmatization and discrimination against Roma, fuelled by statements by leading politicians and the issuing of official guidelines for eviction and expulsion, has intensified in the latter half of 2010. Claudia Charles, a lawyer for GISTI (Group for the Information and Support of Immigrants) told Amnesty International, “The harassment, threats and destruction always existed. Now, however, we see it everywhere.”

Roma communities forcibly evicted
Research conducted by Amnesty International in Paris and Marseille in September and October 2010 has shown that many evictions of Roma camps by the authorities have been carried out in violation of international human rights standards.

Roma who lived in the dismantled camps and local NGOs told Amnesty International that Roma residents’ homes were destroyed minutes after they had been evicted. The local authorities had neither consulted with them nor made offers of adequate alternative housing.

Roma camp inhabitants and local NGOs told Amnesty International that eviction orders had not been explained or translated into a language understood by Roma; in many cases they had not even had time to gather their possessions. They had been left to try to find another place to build a new home. Under these conditions it remains very difficult for individuals to legally challenge their eviction.

M., a father of four living in a Marseilles squat, told Amnesty International: “Two days before demolishing [the building], they came and told us that we needed to move away. They didn’t care where, they just told us to leave. And one morning we saw the bulldozers. Some people came into the house, they threw what was inside out of the windows and started to demolish it.”

Adrian, living with his family in a Roma camp in the woods in Villeneuve-le-Roi, Paris, said: “We managed to take most of our belongings but not everything. We were afraid as they started demolishing the houses on top of us… they started kicking the barracks and hitting them with metal bars as we were trying to gather our things…  We slept one night on the street with the mattresses on the ground after the police evicted us.”

Forced evictions
A forced eviction is the removal of people against their will from the homes or land they occupy, without genuine consultation with those affected and the offer of adequate alternative housing, regardless of whether they rent, own, occupy or lease the land or housing in question.

The effects of evictions are catastrophic. Forced evictions often result in people loosing their personal possessions, social networks, and access to jobs and services, such as schools and health care. People may become homeless or find themselves living in worse situations then before.

Not every eviction that is carried out by force constitutes a forced eviction, if the appropriate safeguards are in place.

Struggling to live with dignity
Amnesty International was told by the Roma people its delegates met in Paris and Marseille about the vicious cycle of marginalization and exclusion in which they find themselves in France and other EU member states in which some of them had previously lived. Most of them try to make a living out of what they can, by recycling scrap metal, as casual labourers, or, by begging in the street. None of these solutions provides for a stable income or for a life lived with dignity.

C., a Romanian woman living in a Camp in Massy, Paris, told Amnesty International that many of the people living in the camp want to work but cannot find employment: “Of course we want to work. Even those who go and beg on the streets and don’t know the language have boards with written messages like ‘We beg for work, we want to work, we want to make a living’”.

Romani parents also spoke to Amnesty International of their concern for their children’s schooling. They described being forced to move on so often that their children were mostly unable to register for school, or faced bureaucratic obstacles when they attempted to register, which resulted in them being unable to attend school altogether.
Christèle, a representative of the Paris NGO, Imediat, told Amnesty International that, of about 30 children she had assisted in registering for school during the last three months, only three had been accepted.

Image: Roma camp in the woods in Villeneuve-le-Roi, Paris. © Juan Pablo Gutierrez 

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