Yesterday almost 100 000 people took to the streets of France, and hundreds more gathered outside French embassies across Europe, to protest again the French government’s ongoing mass-deportation of Roma.
Last month 1000 Roma men, women and children were ‘sent back’ to Bulgaria and Romania, brining the total number of the last year to somewhere near 11 000. It’s a staggering figure raises serious questions about why such targeting of one ethnic group has taken so long to generate serious outrage from citizens, governments and the EU.
Part of the reason is that the government has carefully exploited legal loopholes in EU regulations; utilising a clause that allows expulsion of immigrants who have been in the country for at least three months without a job or are deemed a social burden, and those who have been in the country less than three months but are regarded as a threat to public security. This broad wording, subject to various interpretations by governments, has so far empowered French authorities to dismantle Roma camps and deport their occupants en-masse; a situation that may well change following the coming week’s European Parliament debate on the matter (the UN has already criticised the deportation programme).
The government has also tried to sugar-coat the whole issue by paying a small amount of compensation to each family who leaves; thus portraying the repatriations as somewhat voluntary. However, more significant still in explaining the relatively low level of opposition up until now, is the shocking fact that –if polls are to be believed –over 65% of French citizens back the deportations. Indeed, few observers doubt that the scheme is, at least in part, a cynical politically-calculated effort by Sarkozy to court the robust if not resurgent French far-right before the 2012 presidential elections.
The deportations must, of course, be resisted not only on the basis of the trauma and suffering that they are causing to individuals and families, but also because of the broader and utterly poisonous affects that they have. Whilst the French government is partly correct in pointing out that a significant amount of crime (not least relating to prostitution and people trafficking) is based in Roma camps, to link a particular ethnic group to the concept of criminality and flaunt deportations as an answer effectively bolsters every far-right fanatic who propagates the ridiculous myth that “immigrants are criminals”.
Whilst fanning the flames of xenophobia in such a manner, the deportations concurrently do nothing to address the real issues surrounding immigration and co-existence. Many Roma have sworn to return from Bulgaria and Romania (where they often face persecution) thus indicating a potentially infinite cycle of deportations that will deny Roma communities the chance to develop positive links with French society, deny Roma men and women the chance to find work and contribute to the French economy and deny French police the chance to work progressively with community leaders to stamp out crime in a just manner.
It is right therefore to support those demonstrating today and to join the growing tide of voices, now including the Vatican and members of Sarkozy’s own cabinet, in demanding that the deportations are ended once and for all. If the protests are ignored injustice will prevail, inter-community tensions will grow and, ultimately, France may well come to rue its decision.