News article originally published in the Guardian on Thursday 25 August 2011.
A year after a succession of countries in Europe began breaking up Roma encampments and expelling hundreds of EU citizens back mainly to Romania, the European commission has claimed it is winning the battle to protect citizens’ right to free movement across the bloc.
But advocates of Roma rights have warned Brussels that it is not doing enough to protect Europe’s largest minority ethnic group, and that evictions and deportations continue to be carried out, primarily by France and Italy.
The EU executive said it had resolved 90% of identified cases of infringement of freedom of movement since last summer.
The justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, warned that the commission would “not hesitate to speak out” if member states did not properly apply the fundamental right to freedom of movement and safeguard EU citizens “from facing arbitrary or disproportionate expulsion”. She said: “Last summer’s events were a wake-up call for Europe.”
Last July, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was lambasted by the commission and the Vatican when he linked immigration to crime and promised to expel Roma migrants and destroy illegal camps in a bid to tighten security.
More than 70% of illegal Roma encampments were razed and families were offered a financial incentive to leave the country. A year on, French NGOs said that despite such “discriminatory targeting” by the government, there were the same number of Roma in France as before many had returned. But with camps destroyed, people were living in more poverty and worse conditions than ever, amid a climate of fear and intimidation towards them.
The commission says it has since applied pressure on member states to protect the rights of Roma EU citizens to move anywhere in the union.
“I am now satisfied that a majority of member states have fully implemented the EU free movement rules,” Reding said, adding that France had now changed its laws to safeguard against arbitrary expulsions and discriminatory treatment.
But the commission announced that it had launched legal action against 10 states, including the UK, Germany, Spain, Poland and the Czech Republic, for not adopting the EU free movement directive into law.
Victoria Vasey, the legal director for the Hungary-based European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), warned: “Expulsions are still primarily occurring in France and Italy. Expulsions continue in Germany as well, but this tends to be of Kosovan Roma citizens, and as such are not covered by EU law.
“The statement from the commission today celebrating its strategies is obviously quite different from what is happening on the ground,” she continued. “Contrary to their claims of combatting expulsion, this hasn’t happened. There has be little effort so far.”
The group’s field research showed that, in France, there were fewer ‘paid returns’ being made compared with last year, but there was a new trend of people being placed in immigration detention centres before being removed.
“And evictions from camps remains ongoing, which was part of Sarkozy’s plan of last summer. This creates a climate of extreme harassment so that people are so ground down, life is made impossible, that they leave the country without having to be deported,” Vasey said.
“To save the effort for legal procedures for expulsion, the strategy is to chase them out of town. Marseille, in recent weeks, matches this pattern.”
According to Médecins du Monde, between June and early August a minimum of 500 Roma were evicted from camps in the southern French port city. A large-scale eviction of around 150 people happened on 11 August.
In Italy, 154 targeted evictions took place in Rome between March and May, affecting 1,800 Roma.
“In Italy the situation is similar – harassment through repeated evictions. But unlike France, where this is part of a national policy, the strategy in Italy is more municipally organised,” Vasey said.
“There continues to be a ‘nomad state of emergency’ in Italy, where prefects have been appointed in various regions and have fairly autonomous powers in dealing with the Roma population.”
In Denmark, deportations of EU Roma citizens have often been successfully challenged in the courts. The strategy has been replaced, according to the ERRC, by continued targeting for arrest and harassment of these citizens by the Danish authorities.
“We have seen several examples when a deportation order is struck down, that person is just then arrested on the grounds that they have a banning order in place, even though it has been removed,” Vasey said.
Robert Kushen, the group’s executive director, said: “One year after President Sarkozy made headlines by declaring war on Roma, his campaign continues and is being replicated in Italy.
“The EU has called for Roma integration but is not enforcing European law that is supposed to protect Roma and all EU citizens against such targeted hostility.”