Roma children denied the right to education in France

 Roma children denied the right to education in France

Social worker Philémon (centre) accompanies nine-year-old Darius (right) on his very first day of school on 4 September 2017.

(Eloïse Bollack)

Monday, 8am. The informal settlement of La Petite Ceinture in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, France is still quiet as two volunteer social workers walk in. It is the first day of the school term and they are coming to fetch nine-year-old Darius. Along the disused railway tracks that once encircled the French capital, in this northern district some 300 Roma have been living in makeshift shelters with no electricity and no running water since 2015.

Suddenly, a door opens and a little boy comes running out.

“The night was short, I did not sleep much. I am so excited to finally go back to school! For the first time in my life I will be like any other child,” Darius tells Equal Times.

“Last year, I attended school for a few months. I am very happy to see my friends again. I enjoy drawing and learning,” he says excitedly. “School is much more fun than staying in the ’platz’ [a Romani expression meaning ‘the place’ in reference to the camp where they live].”

Yet, registering Darius for school was an uphill battle. Arriving in France from Romania in 2011, his family went from one informal settlement to another, unable to secure housing and schooling. In May 2016, the town of Saint-Ouen – a suburb just north of Paris where the family were settled at that time – refused to register him and four other Roma children for the upcoming year.

The pretext was that the family’s certificate of residence was domiciled at a community centre, not at a personal address. Only in early October, after obtaining support from le défenseur des droits (an independent constitutional authority responsible for defending the rights of citizens) and the relevant administrative authorities, were the five children able to sit in a classroom.

Two weeks later, the camp was evicted by the police. Once again, Darius’s family moved around for months, from a hôtel social (homeless shelter) to the streets to another informal settlement.

Finally, with his family settled in La Petite Ceinture, Darius could be registered in a new school from January 2017. But the camp was evicted again on 22 February, and the family was placed in temporary accommodation in Saint-Denis by authorities for two weeks.

“Although the hôtel was 45 minutes away from the school, we got organised and we managed to fetch the children as soon as the morning after the expulsion. It was very important that they were not disconnected from school again, and that kept their daily routine,” explains Philémon, one of two social workers with the local association, Les Enfants du Canal. “After such a traumatic event, parents are mostly overwhelmed with finding solutions and reorganising their life. Moreover, they are usually as disorientated as the children."

Failing to meet their obligations

In France, schooling is mandatory for all children between the ages of 6 and 16, whether a child is French or foreign-born, and regardless of how long he or she has been in the country.

There are approximately 18,000 Roma people living in informal settlements and squats across France.

A number of studies by civil rights groups point out that 67 per cent of children living in informal settlements do not attend school regularly, and 30 per cent have never been registered – whether in France or in the country of origin. According to Clotilde Bonnemason, president of the Collectif pour le Droit des Enfants Roms à l’Education (Collective for the Right of Roma Children to Education, or CDERE), local councils deliberately ignore these communities.

“Mayors do not meet their legal obligations by taking a census of all children settled in their district. When people are in regular housing, this is done automatically, but there is no census of those living in squats, shantytowns or on the street. They are simply invisible,” she tells Equal Times.

Under the pretext of the illegal and transitory nature of the encampments, some councils simply refuse to recognise the residency of Roma communities on their territory. Many argue that the danger of imminent evictions would disrupt the educational process.

Other dissuasive measures are also reported. Vaccination records are considered out-of-date, and Roma children are often unable to afford school meals as their parents’ lack of proof of residency or income tax payments means that they are not eligible for social benefits. Roma children are also often assigned to schools far from their homes, which entails prohibitive transportation expenses.

Non-French-speaking children must be placed in special classrooms, as part of the programme Pedagogical Unit for New Foreign Arrivals (UPE2A) implemented by the Ministry of Education in 2012.

“Precisely because townships don’t take a census of the children, because they don’t anticipate the needs, they don’t apply to the Ministry for support to implement these special educational programmes. And then, they plaintively state that they don’t have the capacity. This is a domino effect,” explains Bonnemason.

Out of the nearly 100 children currently living in the community of La Petite Ceinture, for example, only five are registered for school and 23 applications are pending. The main reason is the possibility of the imminent eviction of the encampment, a decision that has been pending since late August. Civil rights groups say the evictions will occur before winter, most likely on 15 November. This would be the fifth eviction of La Petite Ceinture in two years.

“We are exhausted”

“I am happy that my children attend school. This will give them a chance to integrate in the society and find proper work,” Darius’ mother, Elena, tells Equal Times. “But I don’t know what will happen if we are expelled once more. We will be shunted from one side of the region to the other every other week, without any visibility. We are exhausted.”

In the first half of 2017, 4,382 Roma were evicted for safety and sanitary reasons from 50 settlements in France, according to a census drawn up by the League of Human Rights and the European Centre for Roma Rights, with the support of the Romeurope Collective of National Human Rights. Fifty-nine per cent occurred in the region of Île-de-France (the administrative division of greater Paris).

The recurrent evictions of Roma communities keeps people in a vicious circle of poverty and marginalisation, as well as disrupting any undergoing social or administrative procedures such as care, training and employment.

Some local councils refuse to announce the date of an eviction, which does not give inhabitants enough time to prepare for it. Once the police are on the site, residents have to leave immediately. If they lose their few, hard-won administrative documents, they have to start from scratch.

“Most of the time, the authorities provide alternative accommodation for one to four weeks only,” says Philémon. “They dispatch communities into several homeless shelters, sometimes extremely far without public transportation.”

In addition, the shelters have restrictions that don’t always work for homeless families. Only a small amount of belongings can be brought; moreover, cooking is strictly prohibited inside and there are no fridges.

Since August 2012, following concerns raised by the European Union, an “inter-ministerial circular” now requires all slum evacuations to be anticipated and followed up by the relevant local authorities. However, civil rights groups say that these recommendations are rarely implemented.

The cities of Strasbourg, Toulouse and Ivry have all succeeded in eliminating informal Roma settlements, proving that integration is possible when stable housing is provided, children are registered for school, and adults are provided with vocational training, language classes and support in finding work.

“It started from the fundamental principle that no one is destined to live in public spaces. Since 2008, and in partnership with several associations, we have forged links with these communities to understand what their needs are,” says Marie-Dominique Dreyssé, deputy mayor and head of solidarity at Strasbourg Town Hall.

Such integration processes require time, political will and financial means. In addition, most city or town mayors would argue that this work is the responsibility of the state, and not municipal authorities.

However, according to rights groups, the cost of a single eviction and/or demolition is estimated at between €150,000 and €230,000. Meanwhile community integration projects cost around €150,000 each year.

“Politicians and the general public need to understand that this is not a ‘Roma issue’ but a question of poor housing and economic insecurity,” says Bonnemason. “The fact that people identify themselves as ‘Roma’ should not justify all the hardship they are going through.”