France dismantles Roma camps
Anna Sonny, 17 August 2012
By Anna Sonny
The controversial dismantling of Roma settlement camps in France has sparked fresh outrage from the EU. Over the past week, French police have evicted hundreds of Roma people residing in makeshift camps near Lille, Lyon and Paris. Around 240 Eastern European Roma were flown back to Bucharest voluntarily, after being given over 300 euros each in compensation. Interior Minister Manuel Valls stated that the evacuations were necessary on the grounds of health risks posed by unsanitary living conditions.
Critics have accused French President Francois Hollande of breaking his election promise; in a letter written to the Roma community, Hollande pledged not to dismantle any camps without first securing alternative accommodation for those being evicted. Such hardline measures on immigration are reminiscent of Sarkozy’s previous centre-right government, whose targeting of the Roma community in their crackdown on illegal immigration in 2010 prompted legal action from the EU. European Rights and Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding denounced Sarkozy’s handling of the issue as ‘a disgrace’. The EU are now closely monitoring the latest round of evacuations in France to ensure that they are not ‘arbitrary or discriminatory’.
A majority of the estimated 15,000 Roma living in France are believed to originate from Bulgaria and Romania. Although not yet members of the Schengen area, citizens of these countries are permitted to enter France and any other EU member state without visas for up to 90 days under the EU’s free movement regulation. Authorities can repatriate them however, if they believe immigrants will be unable to support themselves in the country. This means that those evicted last week will be free to enter France once again, and some have suggested that the compensation paid to them could help pay for the fare back to the country or to another member state.
The EU has pushed hard for the integration of the Roma in the EU, condemning the intolerance and discrimination they face daily, and citing the economic and social benefits the integration of the Roma community could bring to member states. There are currently between 10-12 million Roma residing in Europe, thus making them the biggest ethnic minority on the continent. The fate of the Roma has been part of the controversy surrounding the Schengen Convention. Concerns over illegal immigrants and organised crime passing undetected around the EU stalled Bulgaria and Romania’s accession to the Schengen Agreement last year, although Cyprus has underlined their accession to the border-free area as a key goal for their 2012 presidency. Jenny Klinge, an MP in Norway (one of the four non-EU member states that have joined the Schengen zone), recently proposed opting out of the Schengen Agreement over security fears and a rise in crime that she believes is inevitable with the accession of the two Eastern European states.
As seen from the recent evacuations in France, there is a sense that the Roma community in Europe are being shifted from one place to the next. A policy adopted by both the centre-right UMP government and Hollande’s Socialist Party can only be a reflection of the steadfast nature of France’s approach to the Roma community establishing camps in France. Bulgaria and Romania’s impending accession to the Schengen area, however, will demand a much more flexible attitude.