It seems there is little to choose between left and right when it comes to dealing with the Roma in France: The familiar pattern of dawn raids and demolition of Roma camps, followed by swift and summary “voluntary returns” to the country of origin is back. The latest raids in Lille and Lyon herald the end of an illusion that things might be different under a socialist administration.
There had been some grounds for optimism in light of Francoise Hollande’s earlier denunciation of Sarkozy’s policy of mass evictions and expulsions, as creating a situation of “intolerable” precariousness for Roma communities; and his pre-election call to abolish “discriminatory measures against Roma populations.” It has since become clear that the populist, political imperative to be seen to get tough on immigration has taken precedence.
The European Commission is closely monitoring developments to ensure expulsions are not arbitrary and discriminatory, is in contact with French authorities, and has requested further information from the French authorities to ensure they are complying with European Union (EU) regulations. One EU source said the scrutiny would mean “a stiff test” for France.
In light of what transpired in 2010, it is prudent of Commissioner Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission, not to take French assurances at face value and to keep a close eye on developments. Back then, a leaked memo openly contradicted assurances given to the Commission by two French ministers that specific ethnic groups had not been targeted in the wave of expulsions. The August 5 memo, signed by the French interior minister's chief of staff and sent to police chiefs, stated that “300 camps or illegal settlements must be cleared within three months, Roma camps are a priority.” This deception prompted Reding to declare: “This is not a minor offence. After 11 years of experience in the Commission, I even go further: this is a disgrace.”
When it comes to housing, will Europe plunge deeper into disgrace in its treatment of Roma citizens? It is dispiriting that this second wave of evictions is taking place within the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies. Hailed at its launch by Reding, as a “giant step forwards for millions of Roma,” the hope that the Framework might signal a new departure by member states has yet to surface. Old exclusionary habits die hard, and for millions of Roma, despite the unprecedented shifts at EU level in policy terms, on the ground, it’s a case of plus ça change (plus c’est la même chose).
Neither is this summer’s bad news confined to France. On July 31, following forced evictions of hundreds of Roma in Milan and Rome, a coalition of NGOs including the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) called on the Italian government to ensure that local authorities act in accordance with the National Strategy on Roma Integration. While the Italian government seems determined to consign Berlusconi’s ‘Nomad Emergency’ to the past, it seems some municipalities have yet to adjust.
Earlier in July, the ERRC in its submission to the UN Human Rights Council, described the situation in Baia Mare, Romania, where some 100 Roma families were evicted and relocated from the city centre to the contaminated site of a former copper factory. The evictions happened a week before the local elections and the incumbent mayor was returned with an 86 percent majority. The municipality has announced its intention to move another 260 Roma families to the site by the end of 2012.
Right now in Ostrava in the Czech Republic, 200 Roma face eviction from buildings condemned as unsafe by the authorities. Their situation, unresolved for several years, as reported in Romea.cz, escalated on July 29, when the water was cut off to all tenants, those whose rents were paid up and those in arrears. One week later more than 50 families were given 24 hours’ notice to vacate the premises. Michal Komárek, Director of Greenpeace in the Czech Republic summed up the situation:
“Several hundred people, including small children, have been left by the authorities and their landlord to rot in sewage, only to later be told they cannot live in such conditions, as they are unsafe. They can go either into privately-owned residential hotels, which most of them cannot afford, or to another ghetto to live with relatives, or they can end up on the street.”
Quite apart from the flagrant injustice of policies of mass evictions and ‘voluntary’ returns, it ought to be clear that short-term coercive responses make no long-term sense. Exclusion is costly and counter-productive. It is quite likely that those Roma who have been “returned” with 300 Euro in their pockets will attempt to migrate again at a later date. Desperately poor EU citizens will continue to use any opportunity to migrate to where the grass really is greener. The depth of poverty and exclusion Roma face was highlighted by findings of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights and UNDP survey on the situation of Roma across 11 EU Member States. It showed that about 45 percent of the Roma surveyed live in households lacking at least one of the following: an indoor kitchen, toilet, shower or bath, or electricity; on average, about 40 percent of Roma surveyed live in households where somebody went to bed hungry at least once in the last month because they could not afford to buy food.
Until there are effective measures to tackle the desperation that drives migration, until there is some sense of hope at home, people will choose to move in search of a better life, and they will often do so in dire circumstances. It should not be beyond the wit of member states to act in concert to devise humane and sustainable responses to this very basic fact of life.