French government to hold talks on plight of Roma after fresh evictions from camps

Wed, Aug 22, 2012, 01:00

FRANCE’S NEW Socialist government is to hold emergency talks today on the plight of the country’s Roma after a wave of evictions of makeshift camps prompted accusations that François Hollande was following Nicolas Sarkozy’s lead in persecuting the ethnic minority.

Human rights groups expressed outrage at a recent series of dawn raids and forced evacuations of caravan sites and squats across France. The police raids left hundreds of Roma, including many children, homeless after caravans were impounded and no arrangements for temporary housing were made. Others were persuaded to board flights home to Romania.

The raids have reopened a bitter row over Roma people in France. In 2010, Mr Sarkozy prompted criticism from the European Commission and the Vatican when he linked immigration to crime and promised to expel Roma migrants and destroy illegal camps. More than 70 per cent of illegal Roma encampments were bulldozed and families were offered a financial incentive to leave the country. Mr Sarkozy’s government was accused of discrimination in expelling Roma Gypsies to Bulgaria and Romania.

Mr Hollande had promised during his election campaign any dismantling of camps would be linked to a promise of “alternative solutions”. But this has not happened with the recent evictions.

Behind a railway siding in Hellemmes, northern Lille, five extended Roma families and their children huddled under tarpaulins on a patch of land near an abandoned building. Flies circled piles of waste, mothers complained of rats and the stench of human excrement rose from a hole in the ground as well as on grass near the edge of the camp.

“We were evicted from our camp two weeks ago, police knocked on my caravan door one morning and told me to leave,” said Anita Proda (27), whose five-year-old son was born in France and had been due to start school in September. “They took my caravan – I grabbed a bag of belongings but had to leave most behind. We’ve got no water here, we can’t wash the children.”

Most of the evicted Roma had put a few belongings in shopping trolleys and come to this spot where a makeshift camp of six caravans already existed. They are now living in cramped, donated tents surrounded by rubbish. Local volunteers bring water.

“These people are being hunted,” said Yann Lafolie of Atelier Solidaire, which had run literacy and education projects and built wooden cabins in the long-standing camp which police dismantled earlier this month. “Our voluntary work used to be about integration, now we’re trying to handle a humanitarian crisis. This Socialist president was elected for change – but there is no change here.”

Outside Lille, in Roubaix – known as the poorest town in France – Roma at a makeshift camp in what was once a supermarket car park were nervous, fearing they would soon be evicted. Families, including a 23-year-old mother of four suffering from cancer, live in decrepit caravans, without electricity or proper water supply.

“There’s a growing anger, a feeling of powerlessness: you can’t force people out and leave them without the least sanitary conditions,” said Bernadette Defais, a local nursing assistant and volunteer for local charity La Solidarité.

On a street nearby, Ramona Ripa (22), a Roma mother of four from Romania, showed off her spotlessly scrubbed kitchen in a once abandoned terraced house. She and others now await a court ruling on whether they would be evicted from empty houses owned by the local authority which they had squatted in for months. “We just want to settle in one place; put our children in school and work,”Ms Ripa said.

Philippe Deltombe of rights group Droit au Logement, said: “By evicting these people, the government is not addressing the Roma issue, it’s just shifting it on to the next location.”

– (Guardian service)