Dozens of Roma leave France in controversial expulsion

19 August 2010 - 20:51 By Ulrike Koltermann, Sapa-dpa

Just under 100 Roma migrants left France on board several charter planes on Thursday, as the country proceeded with plans to expel the migrants to Romania despite criticism at home and abroad.

More expulsion flights were expected to follow in the coming days.

The first plane with 14 on board — six young men and a family of eight who said they had been in France for a few months looking for work -arrived in the Romanian capital Bucharest late afternoon.

French government officials said the Roma were leaving “on a voluntary basis,” after each adult was paid 300 euros (390 dollars) and 100 additional euros for each child.

It is the largest expulsion seen in France since President Nicolas Sarkozy called for tougher action against Roma who are living in the country illegally.

Since Romanian and Bulgarian Roma are considered European Union citizens, they can return at anytime. They can, however, be deported if they commit a punishable crime or are deemed a burden on society.

France plans to start recording the digital fingerprints of voluntary deportees in September to prevent people from seeking the financial benefit more than once.

The Central Council of German Sinti and Roma called on the French government to abandon the expulsions, arguing that the migrants involved are being sent back to extreme poverty and hardship.

Leading politicians in Romania, on the other hand, were more restrained. President Traian Basescu pledged cooperation with Paris in the handling of Roma criminals, announcing that more police officials would be dispatched to France.

“We understand the position of the French government,” he said.

“At the same time, we support without reservation the right of every Romanian citizen to move freely within the EU.” Meanwhile, French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux called on the European Union to do more for the integration of Roma.

“I am waiting for the European Commission to show that it is capable of facilitating the Roma’s access to education, jobs and apartments,” he said.

The commission had earlier publicly warned France to follow EU rules, by for instance handling expulsions on a case-by-case basis.

Also on Thursday, French Secretary of State for Family Nadine Morano announced that her country would pursue an agreement with Romania that would regulate how underage, unaccompanied Roma who end up in custody in France should be handled.

A corresponding text is to be taken up by the National Assembly in the autumn, she told the broadcaster Europe1.

At the same time, she criticized the exploitation of some Roma children.

“When you see these people, who sit on the street and use children to beg — some of whom have been given pills so they are dazed and sleep — then I think that you can’t accept this behaviour,” she said.

The expulsion action came after French authorities cleared more than 50 illegal Roma encampments in the last few weeks.

Hortefeux had announced in July that the government intended to dismantle half of all the illegal Gypsy camps in the country — or about 300 -within three months. It also pledged to take harsher measures against criminals among them.

The clampdown came in the wake of a violent clash between police and a group of travellers earlier in July. The riots followed the death of a young Roma man at the hands of police.

The decision to dismantle the camps has been widely criticized by human rights associations, trade unions and opposition politicians, with some saying it amounts to racism and xenophobia.

French opposition politicians have also accused the government of turning the Roma and other itinerants into scapegoats, and using them to deflect attention from ongoing political scandals.