In Wake of Deadly Blaze, Unanswered Questions Over Romani

A group of Romani in France. Photo: Serge Melki for flickr

A group of Romani in France. Photo: Serge Melki for flickr

A fire on May 13 killed at least three in an abandoned Lyon warehouse serving as a camp for about 200 Romani, adding fuel to the debate in France over how to house members of the semi-nomadic minority. The fire has underscored the unsafe conditions that are rampant in such squatter camps, and renewed long-standing questions about France’s handling of its Roma minority, also known by the derogatory term “gypsies.”

Some critics have protested the government’s policy of demolishing squatter camps and deporting their residents, and others have accused the government of pursuing discriminatory housing policies.

Speaking to Le Monde, François Rabelais University researcher Gregory Cousin said that while the French government has promised to help resettle Romani evicted from illegal encampments, in practice it has largely left the Romani to their fates. A number of Romani evictees do apply for emergency state housing, but Cousin was skeptical of the government’s ability to rehouse them in a suitable manner.

“Accommodation as it is practiced today in France is inadequate, because it does not allow for the settlement of families,” Cousin said.

Statistics suggest that even when Romani seek government assistance in finding new homes, they are likely to be turned away. Cousin said that last winter, the majority of Romani who sought emergency housing were turned down. The French housing crisis and the lingering recession have made it particularly difficult for poor, unemployed people to find lodgings, according to Cousin. The foreign-born Romani are especially disadvantaged, as so few of them speak fluent French.

The French government has steadfastly defended the removal of squatter camps, citing extremely poor sanitation and high crime rates. In a March 14 interview with Le Parisien, Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls called the demolitions “more essential than ever” to fighting crime and drug trafficking, and labeled the squatter camps sources of “human misery.” He said that the illegal camps had to be demolished for the safety of their residents.

Valls promised that the government would “act humanely” towards the camps residents. He said that the evicted Romani would receive all necessary social support to find jobs, and that the government would see to it that their children were enrolled in school.

Human rights groups, however, have accused the government of failing to meet the Romani’s needs, and abandoning families after demolishing camps. “How many deaths will it take for the French state to come up with real solutions for 20,000 people, including 10,000 children, who have chosen to live in France?” asked the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples (MRAP) in an official statement in response to the fire.

France’s Romani population is one of its most marginalized of the country’s minorities. According to Cousin, roughly 20,000 Romani, most of them of Romanian or Bulgarian origin, are thought to live in unsafe slums, often without access to basic necessities like electricity. Children in the camps are especially vulnerable, and often leave school early—if they attend at all—to beg. Roughly half of these Romani live in Île-de-France, with other major population centers in Lyon, greater Marseilles, and Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

In 2010, the French government under Nicolas Sarkozy undertook the highly controversial demolitions of dozens of predominantly Romani shantytowns, in the wake of several incidents of communal violence. The action drew sharp criticism, with some accusing France of pursuing a racist policy. The French government, under Sarkozy and now François Hollande, has categorically denied that ethnicity is a motivator of the demolitions.

The first half of 2013 has seen a rise in the number of “evacuations,” with thousands of Romani forcibly expelled from illegally-built squatter camps. It was in one such illegal camp that this week’s deadly blaze occurred.

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