Forced evictions in Paris suburb are part of wider discrimination against France's Roma minority, whose status is more precarious in atmosphere of xenophobia
By Morgan Meaker
PARIS, Sept 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Baby Lea softly squirms on an old yellowing mattress outside the town hall in Montreuil - a suburb in eastern Paris.
Just three months old, she's been sleeping on the streets with her parents and five-year-old sister for weeks.
Hers is one of 13 Roma families who have been evicted from an illegal settlement nearby. All of them - including 19 children - have ended up on the streets.
"The government treats us like dogs," said Lea's mother, wearing gold hoop earrings, her arms inked with tattoos. She would only give her family name - Mihai.
Campaigners say the forced eviction of families in Montreuil is part of a wider pattern of discrimination against the Roma minority in France and their status in the country is becoming more precarious in an atmosphere of xenophobia.
Last year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein accused France of operating "a systematic national policy to forcibly evict the Roma" with worrying implications for children in particular.
He called on the country to halt evictions without the provision of alternative housing.
Every day since their eviction at the end of July, the families have gathered outside Montreuil's town hall to ask the mayor for permanent alternative housing. Their angry voices cut through the stillness of suburban Paris.
The office of the mayor, Patrice Bessac, did not reply to emails requesting comment.
The families said they were worried about their children's safety and felt threatened at night.
"When night comes, that is when the nightmare begins," said Lacatus Mihai, baby Lea's father.
Another former resident of the Montreuil settlement, Angela, said she was desperate to find somewhere to live so her three children could wash before school.
"The reputation of Roma people in France is that we don't shower," she said. "So we cannot send our children to school dirty. Other parents will complain and they will be discriminated against."
In June, the Operational Platform for Roma Equality - a network of European agencies - said evictions had a particularly traumatising impact on children, leaving them vulnerable to trafficking and other abuses.
With ancestral roots in India, the Roma migrated to eastern Europe in the 10th century and have a history marked by persecution.
There are some 12 million Roma living in eastern Europe, particularly in Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakup of Yugoslavia, many Roma migrated west - looking to escape poverty and discrimination.
The evicted families in Montreuil were all Roma migrants, mostly from Romania and Bulgaria.
Estimates of the number of Roma in France differ depending on definition. A 2014 report by an alliance of 12 countries working to promote Roma inclusion said there were 500,000 Roma in France, including travellers and migrant Roma.
But government says not all travellers were ethnic Roma. The Open Society Foundation puts the number of non-citizen Roma in France at around 20,000.
In 2010, the European Union criticised France over a crackdown on illegal Roma camps launched by then President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The policy was continued by President Francois Hollande and in 2012 the EU's executive arm said it was "closely watching" how France expelled Roma to ensure their removal was consistent with the bloc's rules on the free movement of people.
With the rise in popularity of France's anti-immigrant National Front party in recent years, Pierre Chopinaud, head of the French Roma rights group, La Voix des Rroms, said discrimination was still widespread.
"Roma migrants (experience) two kinds of racism: anti-gypsyism and xenophobia," he said.
Violence against the Roma community is not unusual. In August, Roma living in a Marseille settlement were attacked with a knife and a Molotov cocktail. Seven people were hospitalised, according to local media.
When it comes to evictions, the most important issue is the failure of local authorities to provide alternative accommodation, say Roma activists.
"Even if conditions are poor in the slums, at least the Roma people are protected there. At least they are not on the street, where they are exposed to different attacks," said Radost Zaharieva of the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC).
But Manuel Demougeot - director of the French government department that deals with illegal settlements and slums - says his department's policies are not to blame.
"That is not to say there is no racism against Roma - they are stigmatised - but not by our policies," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In August 2012, following concerns raised by the EU, an "inter-ministerial circular" was sent to regional authorities, offering guidance on evictions - including advice on housing, education and health provision for evictees.
Demougeot said local authorities across France had re-housed thousands of Roma evictees, but acknowledged the 2012 guidance was not legally binding.
"Different regions have different capacities ... it is difficult to find houses in poorer areas of France, such as Seine-Saint-Denis (where Montreuil is situated)."
After seven weeks of sleeping on Montreuil's streets, the evicted families have just been offered temporary accommodation by the local authority, campaigners say.
But the situation is far from ideal.
"They have been offered rooms in hotels for a limited period of time," said Zaharieva of the Roma rights centre.
"Some of these hotels are located far from Montreuil which makes it difficult for the children who go to school."
(Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.