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Roma migrants tossed on sea of uncertainty August 18, 2010

Posted by Yilan in EU, European Union.
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A Roma family stands outside their makeshift shelter built after police seized their trailer two weeks ago in an illegal camp in Roubaix, northern France.

A Roma family stands outside their makeshift shelter built after police seized their trailer two weeks ago in an illegal camp in Roubaix, northern France. Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

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Crackdown on illegal squats and shantytowns coincides with rising anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe

Life was precarious for Rodika Novacovici when she stayed in a flyblown makeshift camp of tarp huts and rusted caravans on the shoulder of the A86 highway that circles Paris, selling scrounged flowers for a few euros a day.

It is even less certain now that she and 57 other destitute Romas found shelter last week in a sparkling clean grade-school gym in this small suburban town 12 kilometres from the heart of the capital.

“A lot of people in France have good hearts,” said Ms. Novacovici, a 36-year-old widow whose passable language skills have made her the spokeswoman for the little group of homeless migrants. “But so many look down on us and I don’t understand why.”

As part of a new nationwide crackdown on illegal Roma squats and shantytowns, French police last week dismantled her roadside camp at 6 in the morning, impounded the unregistered vehicles and offered the adults a choice: Go back voluntarily to Romania with a farewell gift of €300 and a plane ticket, they said, or face deportation.

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said police have uprooted 51 illegal Roma camps in the past two weeks and given 700 people expulsion orders. The government has vowed to clear out another 260 camps by the end of October. President Nicolas Sarkozy, in announcing the policy in July, called them eyesores and hotbeds of prostitution and trafficking.

The crackdown comes at a time of rising anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, where conservative politicians in Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and other countries are pushing for restrictions on foreign workers and residents. The poverty, homelessness and neglect of the Roma, whose roadside shantytowns and recourse to begging make them especially visible, have made them the targets of periodic bursts of police action across Europe.

They were victims of attacks by vigilantes in Italy in recent years. The mayor of Copenhagen recently called for their mass deportation from Denmark as criminals. Germany, which gave them temporary refuge during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, has been sending hundreds of Roma families back to Kosovo each year.

The Roma migrants in France, estimated at between 6,000 and 10,000 people at any one time, are a case study in how European integration has limited policy options. They are part of a wave of European migrants who have taken advantage of the European Union’s free movement of labour and people to settle in countries where the standard of living, and job opportunities, are better than at home.

Movement between EU countries has now become the single biggest driver of European migration. According to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 44 per cent of the foreign migrants in European countries are workers from elsewhere in the EU.

While many Roma are considered stateless or lack rudimentary identification papers, the majority on the move in Europe come from Romania and Bulgaria. Those countries joined the EU in 2007, giving their citizens the right to move freely within the EU and to stay on for up to three months unless they are deemed a threat to public order or an unreasonable burden on society.

Beyond three months, depending on the rules in the host country, they generally have the right as EU citizens to remain in another European country if they prove they are working legally, studying or have enough money to stay off welfare. All EU countries, apart from Sweden and Finland, have placed temporary restrictions on Romanians’ and Bulgarians’ access to jobs. But under EU rules, those special restrictions must be eliminated by 2014.

So the Roma, formerly known as Gypsies, can be expelled if they are deemed to be a social burden or working informally. But they also can freely come back.

Meanwhile, small towns and cities are providing temporary lodging for Roma families from dismantled camps.

“We are responding to an emergency situation, but there’s no magic solution,” said Micheline Odin, a city councillor in Choisy-le-Roi who brought diapers, donated baby clothes and some basic medicines to the families sprawled on borrowed mattresses under the basketball hoops in the school gym. School starts in two weeks, the gym will have to be vacated and the city already has more than 2,000 people on a waiting list for public housing.

Other local officials expressed the same worries.

“It’s clear that when people who have no right to work, and are chased from squat to squat, have to feed their kids, they are going to live on the margins of legality,” said Dominique Voynet, mayor of Montreuil, where some 60 Roma have been living in an unused sports stadium since being driven from their squatters’ camp last week. “I don’t accept it. But it’s the undeniable reality.”

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