(Paris) - The strong condemnation by the European commissioner for fundamental rights, Viviane Reding, of France's expulsion of Roma to Romania and Bulgaria sends a powerful message against discrimination, Human Rights Watch said today. At a midday briefing in Brussels, Reding said she was personally convinced that the European Commission would have to initiate infringement proceedings against France for a discriminatory application of European Union law on freedom of movement.
A special charter flight to Bucharest took off on September 14, 2010, from Marseilles with about 100 Roma adults and children, despite a European Parliament resolution on September 9 calling on France to suspend the expulsions. Another flight left Paris the same day with 130 people aboard. European parliamentarians had urged the Commission to take action during a fierce debate last week in Strasbourg.
"Reding's forceful statement comes not a moment too soon," said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The French government needs to heed the calls from Brussels and halt this abusive policy."
According to official figures, 979 Romanian and Bulgarian Roma were expelled between July 28 and August 27. Almost half were removed on special flights, while the rest were put on regular commercial flights. Many of those returned had been evicted from informal settlements. Another charter flight is scheduled for September 30.
The French government contends that the vast majority of those returned left France voluntarily. For several years, France has had a "voluntary and assisted" repatriation program, offering adults 300 Euros and children 100 Euros to be returned to their countries of origin.
The Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, has raised concerns that some of these returns are not actually voluntary. He cited intimidation by law enforcement personnel and the confiscation of identity papers to prevent individuals from changing their minds.
Moreover, those who refuse to leave face expulsion. In July 2008, a coalition of French nongovernmental organizations filed a complaint with the European Commission about this practice. Two years later, as of mid-August, the Commission had not responded.
In late July, the government had announced its intention to destroy 300 unauthorized camps. By the end of August, 128 of the camps had been destroyed. There is evidence that the government specifically targeted camps occupied by migrant Roma from Eastern Europe with a view to organizing expulsions. Gens de voyage (the French community known as "travelers") also sometimes live in unauthorized camps.
The right to adequate housing under international law includes protection against forced evictions and requires France to provide appropriate advance notice and compensation for lost or destroyed belongings, and to offer alternative accommodation.
"France should immediately halt all expulsions and open an independent review of its policy," Ward said. "The government also needs to ensure that evictions from unauthorized Roma camps are not discriminatory and do not leave people homeless."
Reding's courageous stance against France inspires new confidence that the EU's new human rights architecture may fulfill its promise, Human Rights Watch said. Last year's Lisbon Treaty made the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights binding EU law and led to the creation of the new post of commissioner for fundamental rights within the European Commission. Reding, appointed to the position in December 2009, declared in February a "zero-tolerance policy" for violations of the charter. While the commission is taking action against Greece over its broken asylum system, with the support of some member states, concerns had remained that the commission would be reluctant to confront other abuses by member countries.
Reding's statement came after the French media, on September 11, published a leaked administrative circular from the Interior Ministry, dated August 5, that ordered prefects to take "systematic action to dismantle illegal camps, priority given to those of Roma" and associated these measures with the "immediate expulsion of irregular foreigners." The French immigration minister, Eric Besson, and the European affairs minister, Pierre Lelouche, had assured Reding that specific ethnic groups had not been targeted. In her statement today, Reding called France's actions "a disgrace." The government adopted a new circular on September 13, following an outcry that eliminated the reference to Roma.
The European Commission is expected in the coming days to conclude its legal analysis into whether the expulsions of Roma to Eastern Europe violated the 2004 EU Directive on Freedom of Movement. At issue is whether France targeted a specific ethnic group - the Roma - and whether it failed to ensure the necessary procedural and substantive safeguards. Infringement proceedings are a mechanism the European Commission can use against member states that breach EU law, including, where necessary, bringing them to the European Court of Justice.
The Freedom of Movement directive allows for deportation of an EU citizen only when the individual has stayed in the country beyond three months and cannot prove sufficient means to stay, either through employment or other means, or poses a "genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat for public policy or public security."
The French government has engaged in a highly publicized campaign against migrant Roma from Eastern Europe, using inflammatory rhetoric linking the Roma with crime. The campaign followed a riot in mid-July in Saint-Aignan by the gens de voyage after a member of that population drove through a checkpoint and was fatally shot by a gendarme. The gendarme's claim that he acted in self defense has been called into question, and he may face criminal charges.
The government has announced plans to reform immigration law to facilitate the expulsion of migrant Roma for reasons of public security. Amendments to an immigration bill currently under examination in Parliament would allow expulsions of those who pose "a threat to public order due to repeated acts of theft or aggressive begging," who "abuse the right to short-term stay in order to evade the stricter rules for longer stay," and those who "represent an unreasonable burden on our welfare system." In late August, a court in Lille rejected the governments' argument that living in an informal settlement justified expulsion on public security grounds.
Roma constitute Europe's largest minority. They face widespread discrimination, violence, and extreme poverty in both Eastern and Western Europe. A survey by the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency in 2008 found that half the Roma respondents had experienced discrimination at least once over the previous 12 months, particularly in housing, education, employment, and health care. More than a third of those surveyed said they had been the victim of a crime during the same period. France denies that it has any minority populations and is the only EU member state that has not signed the Council of Europe's convention on the rights of minorities.
"Instead of stigmatizing an already vulnerable group, the French government should work to address the poverty and social exclusion Roma face," Ward said.