News / Europe

In France, an Experiment in Integrating Roma

Simona (R), a 11 year-old Roma schoolgirl who has been living in France for 6 years, plays with children near shelters at an illegal camp on the banks of the Var River in Nice, southeastern France, Nov. 6, 2013.
Simona (R), a 11 year-old Roma schoolgirl who has been living in France for 6 years, plays with children near shelters at an illegal camp on the banks of the Var River in Nice, southeastern France, Nov. 6, 2013.
Lisa Bryant
Last month, the European Union lifted work restrictions on citizens from Romania and Bulgaria - including the hundreds of thousands of Roma people. Europe's largest minority has not exactly been welcomed with open arms. That's particularly true in France, which has been widely criticized for its evictions and deportations of Roma. But today, a growing number of communities reject the national government's tough stance and are trying a new approach.

These rows of battered camper trailers seem like an unlikely testing ground for social integration.  It's afternoon and the compound is filling up. Men and women are coming home from work. Children are coming home from school.

People come over to say hello to Marie Louise Mouket, a big woman who wears a colourful scarf. Mouket heads a local association called ALJ93. It's working to carve out a future for the Roma community here in Montreuil and other working-class suburbs of Paris.

The aim is to help families realize their goals - which may change over time. So far, Mouket believes, the association has achieved positive results.

In some ways, the goals seem modest. Learning French and sending the children to school. A job. A place to live. But for the estimated 20,000 Roma in France, they are enormous. Many live precariously in squalid camps.

At her office, Mouket points to a map of Romania. This group of Roma come from a village in the western part of the country. In 2008, a fire destroyed their squatter camp in Montreuil. That's when the city began a program to find them housing and jobs through the IPJ93 association.

Richard Zamith oversees the program for the city.  Zamith says the Roma families must agree to send their children to school, get health checkups and look for jobs with the help of social workers. They can't be in trouble with the police. If they don't respect these rules, they're out of the program.

Today, about 62 families are enrolled. Of the families in the trailer park, roughly half have at least one member with a job. And some have found housing outside of the camp.

Twenty-five-year-old Gavila Cirpacie works in the hotel industry. He says he likes the program. He's treated with respect. France is better than Romania, because he can find work here.

Many of these Roma work in the hotel or restaurant business around Paris. Twenty-four-year-old Gabriella Cripasi works at a canteen in the suburb of Aubervilliers.

She says she wasn't able to find a job until now. She really likes the restaurant business. She wants to become a cook.

Canteen manager Laurent Vidaller has hired five Roma from the integration program. He says they're hard working and punctual.

Vidaller acknowledges Roma tend to be associated with illegal immigration and foreign customs. But, he says, these perceptions change once you get to know them.

Changing perceptions of this ethnic community, which has ancient roots in India, isn't easy. Many French, and other Europeans, who may see Roma scrounging in garbage cans and begging in the subway, and stereotype them as beggars and thieves.

The Roma and human rights groups say those stereotypes are false, and they face discrimination in education, jobs and public services.

France has deported thousands over the years, earning sharp criticism from the European Union. As of this year, Roma from Romania and Bulgaria no longer need work permits in Europe. Even so, they can be deported if they can't find jobs.

Nor has France changed its policy of razing squatter camps. Philippe Goossens, Roma expert for the French Human Rights League, says French authorities evicted nearly 20,000 Roma from camps last year - double the number in 2012. 

"It is crazy, because this eviction[s] doesn't solve anything. They just put the people on the street, and of course they go to another place and rebuild the slum. It's ridiculous," he said.

Now, some municipalities are taking a different approach - embracing the Roma, not rejecting them. Most are in the Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the poorest areas of France, which also has one of the highest Roma populations. Bordeaux, Nantes and Lille, have similar programs.

Zamith, the Montreuil official, says once these programs are widely adopted, people will stop talking about a "Roma problem".

For now, however, they are costly and limited in scope. And unless the state changes its tough policies, says Goossens, local efforts are unlikely to work.

"Today, we have a national policy of rejection..if, at the national level, there is no real will or policy of insertion of these [Roma] communities, it's difficult to put in place action at the local level," said Goossens.

But Montreuil's Zamith believes integration is the only option.

If France deports the Roma, they'll only return - and the problems will start again. All the more reason, he says, to address them now.

You May Like

Video Getting to Zero AIDS Infections

More than 35 million people around the world are infected with HIV, a disease that is both preventable and treatable

Children, Childhoods Lost in European Refugee Crisis

According to UNICEF, 190,000 children applied for political asylum in Europe in the first 9 months of this year - twice as many as last year

What Happened When I Landed in Antarctica

Refael Klein chronicles what it's like to visit one of the coldest, most desolate places on Earth

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs