Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Dealing with the Roma tragedy in France - an insider's story and an impossible dilemma

A Roma camp near Lyon's St Exupery airport, now dismantled (my photo)
The story got very little press attention at the time, but it deserved much more. It concerns a fire which broke out early in the morning of May 13 in the upper floors of a derelict factory in Lyon, where I live. The fire - the second fatal incident in the building in just three months - claimed the lives of two Roma women and a child. The previous accident had killed a Roma man who was trying to remove a small wooden beam from the roof in order to build a fire and heat the building when the roof collapsed upon him.

These victims and many other Roma had been squatting in the building for several months as a direct result of the French government's policy of destroying Roma camps, thus forcing them to move on and take refuge in whatever shelter they can find. Many of them are forcibly sent back to their countries of origin in charter flights which take off regularly from the airport, and the EU has expressed its strong disapproval of this policy on several occasions, but to no avail.

So much for the news, but what of the story behind it? What are the feelings of those who are charged with dealing with this grim situation, its consequences, and its human cost?

The stark answer to those questions came yesterday evening in the form of an email from a dear friend who works in the French education system and whose job it is to coordinate action to help, if not the adults, at least their children. What this person wrote made my blood run cold.

"At the very moment when new Roma camps are sprouting up everywhere, like flowers in the spring rain, and at a time when we are totally overwhelmed by the phenomenon whilst Roma families are in a living hell, fighting as they are to keep their heads above water and stay alive, my job is to contact them to ask them to bring their children to school. After all, isn't this an opportunity for them to escape their miserable existence? 

But are these parents, who are now in mourning for their loved ones - a sister, a cousin or a mother - who died in a fire, even aware of how important it is to put their young (3-6-year olds) in school? Then again, what possible significance could the concepts of 'scholastic assiduity' and 'socialisation' hold for them, seeing as they spend all their time dealing with life, death, being hunted down, and rejection? These are two worlds, two realities, and they are in conflict. 

I am extremely ill at ease at having to insist on reminding them of French law - to which they are nevertheless subjected - and that we all have to deal with the situation together. But that's my job. [...] In the case of one family, I have to keep 'harassing' them to persuade them to send their oldest child, whose 6th birthday it is today, to school. At 6 years old the law demands that he goes to school and so I had to tell his father that he would be breaking the law if he didn't send him.

I'm only doing all this because I believe that schooling represents an all-too-rare rare opportunity for these children..."

The situation of France's Roma population is dire, the government is treating them like cattle, they are in an impossible position, and things look set to get even worse this summer.

Please spare a thought for the Roma and those who work with them. Thanks.


  1. Jennifer Greco of "chez Loulou" posted an interesting article on Facebook.

    I think tourists are very weary of Gypsies because of their reputation. So France doesn't welcome them, and I heard about this problem in Spain and Italy too! I wonder how other countries deal with them. I can write that if I am not welcome somewhere, I move on, or educate myself to have a better life or fit in, particularly for my children. Gypsies would not have a chance in the US (it's why there aren't any gypsy camps here). Particularly in the Southern states, they would be shot at and kicked out. The very sad thing is that those poor people are being exploited by their own leaders.

    1. Oh yes, they do cause problems in certain cities that's for sure. But that's no reason to treat them as they are treated here, particularly the women and children. Besides, doing so only increases the likelihood that they will steal etc. What needs to be done is to put pressure on their countries of origin to create better conditions for them there so that they would be able to go 'home' and have a basic but acceptable income etc, that which is far from being the case right now.