Roma – the unwanted Europeans

Suspicion of people who are poor and homeless is fuelled by rumours of stolen children and French bungling over the expulsion of a Roma family

Le Havre

Samuel lives in the derelict changing rooms of a disused university football pitch with his mother, father and eight brothers and sisters. He is one month old.

To visit Samuel, you pass through a jagged hole in a concrete wall. There is no electricity and no running water. Heating is provided by a wood stove made from an oil drum.

Four families, including eight adults and 20 children, live in, or around, the derelict changing cabin beside the weed-strewn pitch. Norica, aged 10, with blue eyes and light brown hair, proudly shows off her family's home: a hut the size of a small hen house constructed by her father from scavenged wood.

Below the lino floor is a thin sheet of board placed on the red gravel of the former penalty area. This is not a slum in Mumbai or Bucharest. The pitch is a few metres from the campus of the technical university of Le Havre in upper Normandy. The four families who live here are citizens of the European Union – Roma gypsies from Romania who arrived in France, legally, nine months ago.

Since they arrived, they have twice been ejected by French authorities from similar camps. Another Roma encampment near Le Havre was burnt this summer after its inhabitants were ordered to leave by a hooded gang. Norica's father, Sever Covaciu, 32, speaks only broken French. His daughter, who speaks the language remarkably well after a few months in French schools, translates for him.

"People wonder why we come here to live like this but, for the Roma, life is much worse in Romania," he says. "In France, the children can go to school for free. They can eat at school for free. In Romania, we must pay for school. In Romania, our children die of hunger. In Romania, Roma children die every day."

Mr Covaciu and his family were briefly accepted this summer as candidates for "integration" in France, even though they had breached the three months deadline for EU visitors without money or jobs. Their tolerated status has now been rescinded, without explanation. And so the Covaciu family – and all four families on the football pitch – risk a subsidised deportation back to Romania.

There are relatively few Roma in France: an estimated 17,000, compared with 30,000 in Belgium, which has a sixth of France's population. They have become, nonetheless, over the past two years one of the most explosive issues in French politics – to the point of provoking a government crisis this month which further, and perhaps terminally, damaged the authority of President François Hollande.

Previously a target of choice for former President Nicolas Sarkozy, the Roma have become a pet issue for a rising figure of the French Left – the popular interior minister, Manuel Valls. They are, he says, "different from us", and incapable of integrating in French society. Their fate, or "vocation", is to return to Eastern Europe, he adds.

The rate of expulsion of Roma from makeshift camps in France is the same under Mr Valls and Mr Hollande as it was under Mr Sarkozy – and four times higher than in Belgium. Mr Valls's uncompromising attitude explains why Leonarda Dibrani, 15, became a cause célèbre last week for the young and the left-leaning in France.

Leonarda, who had lived in eastern France since 2009, was removed from a bus during a school trip so that she could be deported to Kosovo with the rest of her family. To stop his government from tearing itself apart over her expulsion, President Hollande made what was seen as an ill-judged, conciliatory offer last weekend in a nationwide TV address.

Leonarda could return, he said, but not her parents or her four siblings. The bright and likeable girl interviewed live on TV from Kosovo, instantly rejected the offer as "heartless".

The discovery of blond children in Roma families in Greece and Ireland last week has cast further shadows of suspicion on Europe's largest and most impoverished minority. There is now evidence that Maria, the Greek "blond angel", was given up willingly at birth by an impoverished Bulgarian Roma couple.

This is precisely what Maria's host family had told Greek investigators – but not before giving them several other accounts. Nothing about the Roma, it seems, is ever simple. They are the original Romanies, 12,000,000 people, living mostly in Romania and Bulgaria, descendants of emigrants from India in the Middle Ages. They have been marginalised and mistreated for centuries. The popular belief in Eastern Europe – and increasingly in Western Europe – is that they are lazy, thieving, begging, drunken misfits, whose chief industry is to produce children.

The principal contact most French people have with Roma is with beggars and pickpockets, such as the gangs of Roma children who forced an emergency closure of the Louvre in the summer.

Pro-Roma activists insist that this is a small minority.

"Child-stealing gypsies? It is like something from the 19th century," said Roselyne Mabille, a campaigner for the homeless in Le Havre who has taken up the cause of Roma migrants. "There are some Roma who beg and steal, but you can't smear a whole people the way Valls does. Most of the Roma are doing what you or I would do and what immigrants have always done. They are looking for a better life."

An official in the Interior Ministry, speaking anonymously to The Independent on Sunday, said: "Valls has admitted that some of his words were ill chosen, but there is a Roma problem. Free movement of peoples within the EU was never expected to apply to people who are often illiterate and frequently – to put it carefully – have little aptitude for work. We already have to find room, at a time of high unemployment and budget cuts, for asylum-seekers from Syria and Africa. At least most of those want to stand on their own feet here."

Madelin Miron, 21, a young Roma man with two children, insists that he too wants to stand on his own feet. He has a one-day-a-week job at Le Havre market. He, his wife and children have just moved from the derelict factory where they were living to sheltered accommodation.

"I want to work. I want to make a life for my children," he said. "I don't beg. I don't steal."

Back at the football pitch, Aurélie, a local woman in her thirties, has come to visit Samuel's parents and the other Roma families. She is the head of the parents' association at the school where blue-eyed Norica – who had never been to school in Romania – learnt her French.

"All I can say is that the Roma kids always come to school on time," Aurélie said. "They are always well turned out. They study hard. They get on fine with the other kids."

Whatever the politicians may say, there is a lurking Roma problem. There are 10 to 12 million Roma in Europe, who are, almost without exception, very, very poor. And only a relative trickle has reached Western Europe so far.

But from next January, restrictions on work rights for Romanians and Bulgarians in France and elsewhere in the EU will end. And the more Roma who succeed in France and elsewhere, the more that will want to come.

The real problem, the unspoken fear, may be that the Roma, if not actively discouraged, could be perfectly capable of integration.

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