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Condemned to wander, Roma seek sedentary lives

Text by Sarah LEDUC

Latest update : 2009-06-01

Despite Romania’s entry into the European Union, the Roma people are not wanted in several European countries. FRANCE 24’s Sarah Leduc reports from the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis.

The main expressway is their garden, the motorway their horizon. Ten Roma families have just settled in Saint-Denis, an impoverished suburb located around 10 kilometres north of Paris, in a camp set up by MDM, the French acronym for Médecins du Monde, or Doctors of the World.

The camp was set up overnight between May 26 and 27.

After being forced to quit their former dwellings on May 23, when a fire ravaged a warehouse in Bobigny, a city north of Paris, they moved to Gennevilliers, another north-western suburb of Paris, which they also had to leave.

The 116 people — including 41 children and five pregnant women — seem to require little to survive.

Located three subway stops away from Paris, their present dwelling has no running water or electricity. Only a row of mobile toilettes — which are also used as football goalposts — are installed on the site.

“We are in France, and yet we have the same sort of refugee camps that you see in international conflict zones,” says Stéphanie Laudrel, an MDM coordinator.

The women stay in the camp while the men and children go out to earn a living by selling scrap or begging. To heat their coffee, the women burn plastic refuse gathered from garbage canisters.

‘Worse than under Ceausescu’

Over the past two months, these Roma people have been expelled five times, leading up to the May 23 fire. The warehouse they occupied in Bobigny was destroyed one Saturday afternoon by a fire that killed Diego, a seven-year-old boy. His family has accepted a humanitarian proposal to return to Romania. The others have declined.

"In Romania, one dies of hunger. At least here, we can manage,” says Mariana, a 37-year-old mother of seven. She left Romania four years ago and has been on the move ever since: from Spain to Portugal and finally to France.

“Here, it’s okay, except for the police force. They’re worse than under Ceausescu,” she says, referring to Romania’s infamous last Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu.

The MDM operations chief says that he has not personally witnessed the sort of violent scenes commonly referred to among the Roma people.

A security official for Hauts-de-Seine, the department in which Gennevilliers is located, said the last expulsion in Gennevilliers was made in accordance with the rules set for illegal property occupation.

According to Laudrel, Hauts-de-Seine officials just wanted to pass on the problem and accompanied the Roma to the department’s borders. Questioned by FRANCE 24, a senior official declined to "add fuel to the circulating rumors”.

Wandering force

Romania’s entry into the EU did not change anything for the Roma people. They obtained freedom of movement but do not have the right to vote in the countries they move to. Right now, all these families want is to settle down here, in Saint-Denis.

Condemned to wander between shantytowns, Mariana today has only one wish: to avoid being driven out. "I want my children to stop sleeping in fear of being expelled in the middle of the night,” she says.

Two officials arrive to check the conditions at the camp…the children are not ready to handover their pyjamas.


Date created : 2009-06-01