Hanging from statues with signs reading, “High school students together, high school students of color,” thousands of Parisian students crowded the streets on October 18, resurfacing controversy over Roma integration versus Roma deportation. The student protests were spurred by the recent deportation of Leonarda Debrani, a 15-year-old illegal immigrant from Kosovo who was detained on a school trip. While Debrani’s case has become popularized by the French media, she represents only one case out of thousands this year.
With over 10,000 Roma sent back to their home countries of Romania, Bulgaria and Kosovo this year, the issue has once again caught the attention of the European Commission, Amnesty International and other anti-discrimination groups. Divided sentiment rests over whether squatter cities should be dismantled in large numbers and Roma people should be sent back to their country of origin, or whether France should take on the cost to provide adequate housing and better integration programs. While French borders are open to the free movement of Roma EU members from Romania and Bulgaria, politicians and many citizens are feeling the burden of Roma immigrants who are not attempting to integrate yet benefiting from the social welfare program.
Decades of expulsion leave Roma with a nomadic lifestyle
Since World War II, the Roma people have been expelled to different parts of eastern and western Europe, yet historically they do not stay in one place very long. The Roma population originates from Romania, Bulgaria, and ex-Yugoslavian countries. However, after the fall of the Soviet Union, many sought asylum in western European countries such as France and Italy to escape poverty and discrimination.
For those who remained in Romania, government aid is few and far between. A 2013 report from Amnesty International shows 75 percent of Roma live in poverty in Romania. Since 1993, the human rights organization has produced dozens of reports on the forced expulsion of Roma in Romania from their homes. Explanation for the expulsions comes from unsafe housing, which the government must tear down due to health codes. In October, it reported 100 people forcibly evicted, and many of their possessions demolished, leaving their families without a home. Despite petitions by the organization, many Roma continue to be evicted and are not provided adequate housing options by the government.
Romanian president, Traian Basescu, said during the 2010 Annual Summit of Romanian Diplomats, that he is seeking a European solution for the Roma people. “We take pride in our protecting the values, habits and culture of minorities … the question is do we, the EU, have the capacity to find a solution for nomadic Roma?” he said.
Today there is believed to be between 100,000 and 500,000 Romas living in France according to the Council of Europe Roma and Travellers Division. In Paris alone, there are around 20,000. Expulsions in France first spiked during the Sarkozy administration in July of 2010, according toBBC, after dozens of French Roma used hatchets and iron bars to attack a police station and burn cars in the Loire Valley region. BBC reported that violent protests also occurred in Grenoble after police shot and killed a man, believed to be armed, during a burglary. In light of the attacks, former president Nicolas Sarkozy, called for the dismantlement of 300 illegal Roma camps within three months.
Viviane Reding, Vice President of the European Commission, said enough was enough in a speech later that year, calling action by the French authorities in the expulsion of Roma a disgrace. “This is not a minor offense in a situation of this importance… I would even go further: This is a disgrace,” she said. “Discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin or race has no place in Europe.” This year, for the second time, Reding threatened France with EU sanctions. None, however, have been given.
This issue gives way to the question of the freedom of movement. Granted by EU law, it allows all citizens to move freely within EU member states. However, citizens from Romania and Bulgaria are currently subject to the same laws as non-EU citizens, which states they must have a job offer to obtain a work or residence permit, allowing them to remain within the country for more than three months. In contrast, countries that have been a part of the EU for over 7 years may freely travel as long as they wish in other EU member states. They are also free to work in any EU country so long as they register with the local government.
The issue for Roma becomes more complex due to unemployment rates that are still on the rise. Because of this many are not able to find work and after three months are considered illegal immigrants. Many French citizens are worried that it isn’t a problem due to lack of jobs, but an apathy in seeking employment while they benefit from the social welfare program.
According to RTL, a national French radio, in the case of Debrani, her father had not sought employment for at least five years. Instead the family lived off of odd jobs and government aid. According to CLEISS, the Center for European and International Social Security, any foreigners living in France with more than two dependents also living in the country, receive a varied amount of child benefit funds each month.
French interior minister, Manuel Valls said the Roma are imposing a burden on the French way of life. Valls expressed the duty of the Roma people who are not making an effort to integrate, to return to their country of origin due to a confrontation of cultures.
“The majority [of Roma] should be delivered back to the borders. We are not here to welcome these people,” Valls said. “I’d remind you of [former Socialist premier] Michel Rocard’s statement: ’It’s not France’s job to deal with the misery of the whole world.’” Instead, Valls proposes 80 micro projects in Romania to improve living conditions.
In a poll collected by Le Figaro, asking whether or not they favored deporting Roma without papers, 65 percent of French citizens said they supported the expulsions. While public opinion favors the continued repatriation of Romas, the landscape of the situation will soon change in January 2014. According to EU law, countries that have been a part of the EU for more than seven years are no longer subject to work and border restrictions. At the start of the new year, Romania and Bulgaria will have completed its time commitment, removing any remaining restrictions and making it much easier for Romas to remain in western european countries such as France and Italy.
Olivier Bailly, European Commission spokesman, said that the right for EU citizens to move freely within EU borders must be equally respected for Roma as it is for every citizen. “Free movement as freedom to reside in another country are fundamental rights. If these principles enshrined in the treaties are not met, then the commission will use all means at its disposal to sanction such violations.”
The European Court of Human Rights ruled on October 17, 2013 that France had violated the European Conference on Human Rights. The court stated that the French authorities violated Article 8, which protects the right to respect family life, through the disproportionate expulsion of Romas dating as far back as 2003. “Unfortunately, it is all too common for the French authorities – and courts – to force Roma out of their homes without considering whether it is justified to do so,” said Dezideriu Gergely, ERRC Executive Director.
A political issue for political gains
The Roma people have long been the toy of political elections. In March of 2012, during his presidency campaign, François Hollande wrote a letter to Romeurope, an organization for human rights of the Roma people, which stated that chasing people from a place without a solution was intolerable.
“The policy of the Nicolas Sarkozy government is responsible for the intolerable uncertainty, in which we find these families and make into a population,” Hollande said. “[It is] the ideal scapegoat to justify increasingly repressive policies,” he wrote.
However, the Hollande administration has continued to carry out Sarkozy’s plan on the expulsion of Romas and gone further, sending back more people than ever before.The New York Times reported earlier this year that while the Sarkozy government previously provided airfare home as well as 300 euros for every adult and 100 euros for every child who participated in voluntary repatriation, the Hollande government cut the program to 50 euros per adult and 30 per child.
With the issue arising once again, and only six months before municipal elections, right-wing and populist parties such as the Front National are gaining popularity by describing the issue as a threat to French citizens.While many such as Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National party, represent strong opposition to any immigration to France, increased attention from high profile cases such as Debrani’s may spur broader european action to stabilize the Roma people geographically within Europe and work towards better methods of integration.