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Roma face eviction in Paris suburb

Text by Clea CAULCUTT

Latest update : 2008-12-01

Some 600 Roma inhabitants of a shantytown in Saint-Ouen face imminent eviction. Twenty-four fortunate families will join an integration scheme. The others face deportation to Romania but swear they will return to France.

Aurelia Couaci, a heavy Roma mother of three, lifts her two hands angrily. In a few days, she will be evicted from the Roma shantytown in Saint-Ouen, a suburban town north of Paris.  “I have two children in school” say Couaci, clasping her knees, “why did they not choose me?” Nearby, her friends, young and middle-aged women from the camp, nod their heads – they too do not understand. Couaci is one of 500 people who are excluded from the city’s social integration scheme, and face either voluntary or forced deportation.

Only Twenty-four families were picked to join a scheme that will give them proper housing and job opportunities in a newly-built village of bungalows in Saint-Ouen. For them, it’s an apparent improvement on the sagging grey buildings and make-shift litter-strewn sheds of the camp.

But for the others, the future is bleak. The city of Saint-Ouen has decided to tear down the camp to make way for council flats. Some of the Roma, otherwise known as Romanian gypsies, have accepted to return to Romania, others will try to stay in France. Couaci does not want to return to Romania. “There is no work, no housing,” she says, admitting that employment is also scarce in France. While her husband works on building sites, she does a bit of sewing and laundry. “I do not understand. I don’t steal, I want to work,” she says.

Romania joined the European Union in 2007, and as a recent member, their workers do not enjoy the same rights as other EU workers and must seek work permits once they find an employer ready to hire them. According to Coralie Guillot, a project coordinator for the French NGO Parada, which works with Roma people, a lot of men find undeclared work on building sites, while women either beg for money or do “ménages” (work as cleaners).

Running water and electricity

Already the camp has started to empty. “It’s over,” says Sorin State, a Roma inhabitant who was selected to join the town scheme, looking over at a man as he smashes a shed apart. He and his wife and friends are sitting round the back of a van, Roma music blaring from the speakers.

“I don’t know why they chose me, the prefecture decides,” says Maria State, “but I like it here in France. In Romania, there is no work, no money, nothing to eat.”

On Monday, the twenty-four selected families will leave the camp and move to a new site where they will temporarily live in caravans before moving to the bungalows. Sorin State smiles, crosses his hands and says “after that, no more,” meaning the camp will be evacuated.

Maria and Sorin State look forward to moving out and settling down. Maria says she will look for a job as a cleaner and Sorin, who works on construction sites, relishes the prospect of having running water and electricity.

Neither Couaci nor Maria State quite understand why some were picked and others not. An NGO Pact Arim 93 was asked to lead an enquiry in August 2007 and select candidates for integration. State criteria for immigration include the ability to speak French, having children at school and qualifications.

 “They want to settle down here”

According to Guillot, most of the Roma inhabitants of the camp will either stay in France or come back to France after accepting to return to Romania. “This situation has been going on for years, they always come back,” she says, before adding “half the camp has moved to another site.”

According to the Saint-Denis sub-prefect Olivier Dubaut, a number of Roma inhabitants have agreed to leave France voluntarily in flights organised by the state. Those who remain will be evicted by the police.

However, Guillot maintains a better solution must be found for the inhabitants of the camp – most of whom want to settle in France. “The Roma want to build a life here and they won’t abandon their aspirations.” 

According to Guillot, almost all the parents whose children regularly go to school were selected in the scheme. “We understand the bitterness of the families who were not selected,” she adds. She believes the towns and the Seine-Saint-Denis region should work on finding solutions to the plight of the Roma people because they drift from one camp to the next.

Date created : 2008-08-28