The Illegal Immigrants Conundrum: Is French Expulsion of the Roms a Solution?

A Polish Romani womanImage via Wikipedia
Nicolas Sarkozy, intent on reviving his support on the right, has launched France into a busy summer of bulldozing down illegal Roma encampments. A prize of  €300 (close to $400) was offered to those who left voluntarily and, of course, the flight home was paid for.

So far, this summer,  it has cost the French Treasury some €300 million to deport 1,700 Roms back to their countries of origin, Romania and Bulgaria. That compares with an average of 8,000 Roms deported every year since 2008 - annual deportation averaged only 2,000 before the European Union was enlarged to include Romania and Bulgaria, the countries with the largest Rom populations in Europe.

Are 1,700 or even 8,000 persons per year a lot of people?

Hardly, considering that France has between 350,000 and 500,000 Roms - but most with a French passport.

So if it's only a trickle, why does it matter?

Because of the way the French government is doing it.  First,  it is rushing through the dismantling of encampments and creating havoc. Second, it claims its action is based on checking out the dates on the Roms' entry visas. Yes, as citizens of Romania and Bulgaria, the newest entrants to the EU, these particular Roms need a visa and it has limited validity. That should change in 2014, when those restrictions - whose legality is not entirely clear and may be in contradiction with a 2004 EU Directive - will come to an end.

What is new - and interesting -  in the process is that the French Government has for the first time agreed with Romania and Bulgaria to finance programmes for Roms' reinsertion at home. Something the European Union had promised those countries when they acceded to the Union in 2007, but has never done to the extent promised.

Actually the problem of Roma integration is particularly acute in other countries in Europe: the Czech Republic and Slovaka within the Union and Serbia outside (but trying to get in). Not to mention Spain, Italy etc.
Until recently, the French procedure seemed to be on track and offered what looked like a promising new way to deal with the immigrant problem that is plaguing Western Europe. It was (is) based on three elements:
(1) eject only those who are illegal,
(2) give them a money reward if they cooperate, and
(3) work out with their home countries a system to reintegrate them at home, thus (hopefully) discouraging their return.

Unfortunately last week, the procedure hit a major snag. An official French Government circular was uncovered by Le Monde and other newspapers that made for juicy stuff: the circular specifically named the Roma as those to be expelled as a matter of priority. That smelled of ethnic cleansing and there was the expected uproar on the Left everywhere in Europe. With the vote we saw in the European Parliament.  The French government instantly withdrew the circular but matters took a turn for the worse when Viviane Reding, the EU Justice Commissioner, unjudiciously likened the French Roma expulsion to Nazi deportation. Ms. Reding's rabid declaration gave Nicolas Sarkozy a golden opportunity to mount his white horse in Brussels and shoot everyone down. Unfortunately he made public a private conversation he had with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, saying that Germany would embark on a similar policy of Roma expulsion - we shall never know what they said to each other but, as might be expected given the German sensitivity to comparisons with Nazi policies, they immediately denied Germany had any intention to dismantle the Roma camps.

In this silly flap over what the French are really doing to the Roms, there is a tendency to lose sight of two basic questions: one is the right of EU citizens to move freely across borders within the European Union. This important point was brought to the attention of the EU commission in a very interesting report, dated 1 September 2010 (here is the link: The Situation of Roma in France and in Europe - Information Note). The other is how to solve the problem of Roma poverty and emargination. A galling issue that affects some 7 to 10  million people across Europe (yes, that's how large the problem is!)

No one argues against the right of free movement for EU citizens: it is part and parcel of what it means to belong to the EU. And of course, least of all the French Government who contends that it is only deporting illegal immigrants. Perhaps they are and we shall leave the EU Commission to figure that one out.
What worries me more is the long-term problem of Roma poverty. As long as they are poor and uneducated, they cannot be integrated in our society. This is exactly the kind of problem we face in developing countries: poverty, emargination, lack of education, lack of job opportunities, lack of housing, lack of sanitation and health care, lack of everything. I rather liked the offer of the French Government to finance programmes of reinsertion of the Roma in their country of origin. But what is the content of these programmes? How long will they last? How much funding?

I bet not enough. Never enough and not long enough either.

Reinsertion of the Roms is basically a long-run development problem.That means it should be treated as such, with the proper means and dedication, using everything we have learned so far in development aid and what makes it work. Guiding principles like an "integrated approach", "giving voice to the beneficiaries", allowing "appropriation of the programme objectives by the recipient population" etc etc. We do know how to make it work after 60 years of aid in the Third World (yeah, with many failures and mistakes, but we've learned how to do it, how to avoid the worst pitfalls...)

Can't we do the same for the poor in our own countries? And can't we extend poverty eradication programmes to ALL the poor within the EU borders, regardless of whether they are Roms or not? Isn't high time we really, really paid attention to the problem of income inequality and poverty?
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