Paris: Roma face camp evictions

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A Roma camp took root this summer, below road level, on the Petite Ceinture, in the 18th arrondissement of Paris. Lined with high railings, the shacks made of wood, sheet metal and tarpaulin are set along a section of the train track, abandoned some 50 years ago, that used to circle Paris.

Rickety wooden planks serve as the stairway down to the camp. A man is carrying water to his shack. Further on, a woman is sweeping a black cloth placed over the rails to contain the dust. Smoke from wood stoves rises out of the shacks.

Since summer, the shanty town has been left to grow undisturbed. It is home to between 350 and 400 people, including 70 children – 17 of whom are in school.

SNCF Réseau, the owner of the old railway line, has turned to the justice system, which has issued an eviction order. The High Court ruled that the land’s occupation constitutes “a clearly unlawful disturbance” with “an element of danger, given the proximity of the train tracks open to manoeuvre”.

“We are trying to have a judge appointed to win some extra time before the eviction, so that we can find long-term housing solutions and avoid seeing another shanty being built a few metres away,” explains André Feigeles of the RomParis collective.

“These families are immigrants who go back and forward between Romania, where they are discriminated against, and France, where most of them work on a sharecropping basis. It’s a hand-to-mouth existence.”

Camps in the French capital are unusual. These families, in fact, moved here after being successively evicted from Seine-Saint-Denis, Saint-Ouen, in July, and then La Courneuve at the end of August.

“I lived in a camp in La Courneuve, then in Porte de la Villette, then the Stade de France,” explains Mario, who has taken up residence with his two children in this new shanty town. “I came to France to find a job because there is either no work in Romania or you’re paid €200 a month, which is not enough to live on.”

Twenty-five-year-old Calin Kovaci has just accompanied a family to help them with their application to register their domicile, which would provide them with an administrative address where they can receive mail and claim their entitlement to certain rights and benefits.

Calin, who began volunteering with the association Les Enfants du Canal three months ago, is taking part in the Romcivic programme: “I am Romanian, so I translate for the families, as very few of them speak French, and I help them with dealings such as registering an address, going to hospital, looking for work. This shanty town is very tranquil, there are no problems between the people here.”

Mario has managed to complete the procedures to register his address here and to enrol his children in a school. “I don’t know where we’ll go if we are evicted and, on top of that, it’s cold, so we can’t leave now,” he says.

 

“No slum clearance policy”

2015 was a difficult year for the Roma community in France. On 18 May, in an interview on France Culture, Manuel Valls had defended the need to dismantle Roma camps, “which represent a real danger for these people, for the children”, although not before conducting a “social diagnosis”.

During 2015, however, the French authorities evicted 11,128 people from 111 camps; that is, 60 per cent of the slum dwellers in France according to a census by the Inter-Ministerial Delegation for Accommodation and Access to Housing. And Île-de-France tops the list of regions most hostile to this community, accounting for 62 per cent of all the evictions.

Rehousing solutions were only offered to people from 29 of the 111 camps, compared with 71 in 2014. According to the French Human Rights League (LDH), a circular from 26 August 2012 covering the support that should be given to Roma families “is not being applied and goes unheeded in the vast majority of the evictions”.

This observation was backed up, on 11 September 2015, by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, who said it is “increasingly apparent that there is a systematic national policy to forcibly evict the Roma” in France and Bulgaria.

“The French state has no slum clearance policy, it doesn’t have the resources,” explains André Feigeles. “So every six months, camps are destroyed and new ones are erected. And when there are evictions, the state selects a handful of families, the easiest to integrate, and houses them in hotels miles away from the children’s schools or in emergency shelters that are not suitable for families.”

In a bid to find a lasting housing solution, an unprecedented inclusion mechanism has been launched with the creation of a “Hut Builders” association bringing together the people from the camp. The aim is to respond to an EU call for proposals aimed at improving the living conditions of “marginalised communities such as the Roma”. The budget for Île-de-France is €3,335,000.

“We are just waiting for the City Council to give us a piece of land so we can build our own houses, ourselves, and live normally,” says Mario, proudly.

“There are some highly skilled joiners in the camp,” adds André. “The idea is to build small modular homes for less than €30,000. We met with members of the Paris City Council and they are quite keen, because the local authorities in the region are starting to say that a genuinely coordinated approach is needed. The problem is finding a piece of land in Paris.”

But André has an idea: “The SNCF, for example, has plenty.”

In the meantime, the camp risks being broken up by the police at any moment.