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Roma expulsion orders called into question by lawyers
In the Parisian suburb of Montreuil, 14 Roma men were ordered to leave French territory after a police roundup in August. Lawyers say their case proves the government is behind a discriminatory and illegal policy of expulsions.
At dawn on August 14, seventy Roma were evicted from the house in which they were squatting in the city of Montreuil, just south of Paris. Fourteen men were separated from their wives and children and placed into police custody. As evening neared, the men left the police station after each had been handed an official document: an Obligation to Leave the French Territory (OQTF), a month’s notice to pack their bags.
The document clearly states the reason for their expulsion: they’ve lived in France for over three months, have insufficient financial resources to stay and no family obligations in the country. In accordance with European law, this gives France sufficient reason to demand their departure.
The group’s lawyers, Helene Clement and Guillaume Traynard, think otherwise. The documents issued to the 14 Roma families are identical, save the blank space where their names and dates of birth were filled in by hand. Clearly, Clement and Traynard, argue, French authorities have failed to check the status of each of the Roma.
The Montreuil eviction does not appear to be an isolated case. Since 2008 French immigrant advocacy groups have voiced their concern over prewritten and identical declarations presented to all occupants of evacuated Roma camps across the country. “We can’t write it off as mere negligence by some policemen. It is clearly a national policy,” says Claudia Charles, who works with the French organisation Information and Support Group for Immigrants (GISTI).
French and European laws are clear on this point: the personal circumstances of each OQTF candidate must be reviewed to determine their legal status. “The only thing these men have in common is that they belong to the Roma community,” says Traynard. “It’s an obvious singling-out of a population.”
Among the 14 men, many insist they have not spent three months in France. Their assertion, however, is impossible to verify. As European citizens, they have no obligation to register in their host country, or to have their passports stamped when crossing the border.
The evicted Roma families are now living in a house lent to them by the Montreuil city authorities. Their lawyers have filed a motion to overturn the OQTF’s issued on August 14.
The Roma question
Sitting on one of four double beds that fill the main room on the ground floor, Badarut Lunca, 33, speaks jokingly about his day at the police station. “The translator told us we had to leave France, but we were not obligated to return to Romania. We can just go to Belgium and return.” Like all his Roma friends, Lunca has no intention of returning to Romania.
The European Roma Research Center (ERRC), a Budapest based pro-Roma advocacy group, says it has documented five cases identical to Montreuil’s in the last two months. But its indictment of French authorities goes beyond bureaucratic negligence.
“The OQTF’s being churned out are not the whole story. When we talked to people who had been handed the documents we found a general climate of fear and intimidation by law enforcement agents,” says Victoria Vasey, director of legal affairs at ECRR.
On September 29, the European Commissioner for Justice, Viviane Reding, gave Paris an October 15th deadline to demonstrate that it is carrying out Roma expulsions in compliance with European law. “The Commission wants to know if France failed to implement directives and the procedural rights of EU citizens in a systematic way,” said
Reding’s spokesman, Matthew Newman.
An unsatisfactory response, the European Commission has warned, could compel it to take France to the European Court of Justice. But immigrant rights groups fear that for the sake of appeasement, the Commission could limit its investigation to legal concerns. “Where France is guilty is in its procedure,” decries GISTI’s Charles.
Burden of proof
“We will bring forth all the evidence, all the necessary guarantees, that there was individual examination [of each Roma expulsion case] in August," immigration minister Eric Besson told France’s Senate television channel on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the lawyer Guillaume Traynard says his clients are “sure to win” since they are European citizens and are protected by EU laws. A court in Montreuil will hear their case early next year.
In Montreuil the Roma families huddle around their lawyer as he distributes a new official document. A court paper stating that an appeal of their OQTF is under consideration. “If the police stop you, show them this. They cannot deport you with it,” explains the lawyer. Nodding as they accept the document, the group looks far from convinced.