by Jonathan Lee
If you get off the metro at Porte de Clignancourt in Paris, a little over a kilometre north of the Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre, and follow the line of the disused 19th century Petite Ceinture railway for a couple of minutes from the busy intersection, you will soon come across rows of makeshift shacks lining the railway.
Similar shanty towns can be found tucked away under bridges, behind fences, and on ex-industrial plots across the city and throughout France. Along with a scattering of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, these slums are inhabited almost entirely by Roma.
They come mostly from Romania and Bulgaria, and set up on disused sites using whatever materials are to hand: scrap metal, wooden boards, plastic sheeting. The structures are bitterly cold through the winter and intolerably warm in the summer. Access to clean running water usually involves a long walk, and families are crammed into tiny spaces, often five to ten people in a single room.
French authorities evict around 10,000 Romani people from their homes every year.
“We really live from day to day, we do not know if we will succeed in eating properly the next day” said a Romani woman in February 2017. She was living at Porte de la Chapelle in Paris, where more than 500 Roma live in makeshift housing. “I’ll get firewood” another explained “so that my children will not die of cold at night.”
In addition to the daily hardships of living in these conditions, Roma in France are also routinely subjected to forced evictions by local authorities, who send battalions of police and diggers to wipe away any trace of these slums. French authorities evict around 10,000 Romani people from their homes every year. Last year 11,309 were evicted, many in the coldest months of the year regardless of a new law passing in January intended to prevent evictions during the wintertime. In fact, the 2017 forced evictions census published by the European Roma Rights Centre and the Ligue de droits de l’Homme shows an uptick in evictions right before November, as well as continuing through the winter.
Often it is the same families who are being repeatedly evicted, forced to relocate sometimes several times a year. Many are also deported to their country of origin, and yet more always arrive to keep the population level roughly the same. So why do they keep coming? the criticism goes.
Being from EU member states, they have the right to freedom of movement to work within the union. But some consider that this is not what most of these Roma are doing. The right-wing argument that Roma are coming to exploit the French benefit system doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny either, as many are blocked from proper access, mostly due to their lack of address.
The fact that refugees and Roma often occupy the same places is telling as to why Roma are emigrating. Though not escaping war-torn countries, they are escaping severe societal discrimination and resulting material deprivation. Put simply: it’s so bad in their countries that many feel they are better off squatting on wasteland in central Paris, than they are staying at home.
In countries in Central and Eastern Europe, there are some completely segregated settlements where the living conditions are far worse than most people would imagine exist in Europe. In Romania in particular, the result of half a millennium of chattel slavery and deeply entrenched antigypsyism in society, has resulted in a two tier society where Roma are still treated as second class citizens and discriminated against in virtually aspect of life.
a two tier society where Roma are still treated as second class citizens and discriminated against in virtually aspect of life.
These are settlements without access to basic services such as running water, sanitation and electricity. Where the nearest health centres are tens of kilometres away with no public transport to take them there, where doctors and nurses are reluctant to travel to the settlement to see them. Often their children will attend ethnically segregated schools, if they do at all, where they may come out not even knowing how to read. There are usually no jobs in their area and employers are unlikely to hire them anyway.
To compound their exclusion from society, they are subject to violence from the majority population. Whether attacking children in the street, beating old men and women, sometimes to death, or driving the entire village away in a pogrom and burning down their homes. When the police are not harassing them, raiding their homes, or torturing them in jail cells – they are often complicit in mob violence against Roma, either by joining or standing by as attacks happen.
Though life in France may be comparatively better, the Roma-targeted eviction policy effectively kills any possibility of integration. Repeat forced evictions ensure that these people must start again from scratch every time. Anything they have managed to build up, is destroyed. If their children were registered in school (something that authorities have on occasion actively tried to prevent), these kids must now uproot and start again elsewhere. The same with registering with GPs and health centres. Any work they have managed to begin in the area (often recycling and collecting scrap materials), must now be transplanted to an unfamiliar part of the city. If they are lucky enough to be offered any form of social housing, it will only be some of them, meaning families, friends, and neighbours are separated.
French President Emmanuel Macron understands this. In the run up to the presidential elections his party, En Marche! said this: “Destroying [slums] without any alternative solution is a hypocritical, expensive and inefficient method. Public authorities together with inhabitants, neighbours and NGOs have to find solutions before destroying [slums] or evicting [people], as it leads to the creation of a new camp.” Yet he has continued the eviction policy set by his predecessors François Hollande and Nicolas Sarközy.
In addition to routine forced evictions, 2017 saw an increased level of intolerance towards Roma in France. Arson attacks, denial of access to education, institutional biases in the judiciary, hate speech from politicians and the media, punitive evictions, gun attacks, police brutality and killings. All plagued Romani people in France last year, and the continuous forced evictions by authorities only further exposes Roma who are in a precarious situation to further discrimination and danger.
The targeting of an ethnic group who are vulnerable to discrimination – and let’s be clear, this is a policy which singles out Roma – only creates cycles of repeat evictions and forced removals. Aside from being morally repugnant, it is also a significant squandering of resources: they often involve private security firms and plant hire which can cost thousands per eviction. Repeat evictions as a matter of policy are not in the best interests of French taxpayers, whose contributions could be far better deployed in investing in social assessments and sustainable solutions for housing. In the meantime, Romani families are being denied any chance of success in their new country, exposed to life threatening conditions, and becoming an ever more visible scapegoat for France’s vile and fast growing far-right nationalists.
Featured image via ERRC with permission
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