19 Apr 2011 / 09:56

French Payouts Tempt More Roma Immigrants

Adrian Mogos
Bucharest and Berini

The village of Berini lies 20 km south of the city of Timişoara in western Romania. The first historical record of the village, whose name means lamb in English, dates back to the 14th century.

Living conditions for some of the villagers are medieval too.

At the village outskirts, 150 souls live on swamp land in ramshackle dwellings without electricity or running water. When it rains, villagers scramble to cover the holes in the roofs so their improvised beds - made from wooden planks - are not soaked through.

Meet the 30 remaining Roma families living in this village that lies within the tourist-friendly, historical Romanian region of Banat that borders Serbia.

Tired of eking out a living at home, most of the families left for France to beg on the streets of Lille and Paris. However, many soon returned, being among the first wave of Roma to be sent back from France in 2008, when the controversial deportation programme began.

It was the promise of a payment of €3,600 to set up livestock farms on their return home that persuaded these Roma to go back to Berini.

The French immigration and integration office (l’Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration, OFII) is charged with supporting efforts to reintegrate immigrants who have left France and voluntarily returned to Romania, sometimes by paying to establish micro-enterprises such as small livestock farms.

However, if the French government hoped the offer of money was an effective means of dissuading eastern European Roma from coming to France, they miscalculated badly.

Payout rumours

Rumours of large payouts spread like wildfire among the Roma communities across Romania. The €3,600 payment per person simply to go home made France look like an El Dorado to Romania’s impoverished Roma.

Not only that, Roma communities could easily travel to European Union countries as Romania formally joined the EU in January 2007, removing any requirement to obtain travel visas in advance.

Lucia and Cornel Cristea live in Berini, they have eight children. Four live at home, three in state-run residential care and another is now married and living in France.

Confined to a wheelchair and unable to work, Cornel set off for France hoping to cash in on the French payouts

After being forcibly returned from Italy, Cornel suffered severe health problems and his left leg had to be amputated in 2003. He was unable to provide for his family at all. Hearing about French funding for farms, Cornel was determined not to miss out and left for France in the autumn of 2007.

Unable to pay for the bus fare to France, he borrowed €150 on condition he repaid €500 on receipt of the French government payout for him to return home and set up his farm. Two of his friends, Pavel Nedea and Marcus Novacovici, joined him later.

However, their dream of becoming ‘rich’ farmers came to an abrupt end. After several months on the streets of Paris, they were deported to Romania in the spring of 2008.

“As soon as I landed in Timişoara, I handed the 500 euro to the guy who loaned me the money”, Cornel says.  Almost three years after their expulsion, they are still dreaming of running their own farms.

Shortly after his return, Pavel started to build a small stable in his backyard for the animals he is yet to buy. Pavel and his family share a one-room shack over which a wooden door serves as a roof to keep the rain off the bed where his eight children sleep.

Marcus and Silvia Novacovici, and their six children, claim they were told they had qualified for the €3,660 payout

Since he was sent back from France, he is been working as a daily labourer for other villagers. On a good day, he might earn €8 for working from dawn to dusk.

“I was in Paris to beg, and after I was apprehended by the French authorities, I was told to go back because then I will have sheep and cows,” Pavel says.

Silvia Novacovici, her husband and their six children are also still waiting for the promised livestock fund from the French.

“A lady official in Timişoara notified us that our claim for receiving the money had been approved. We stayed home and waited for the money which never came. We remained only with the papers,” she claims.

Leonard Bebi works for Parudimos, a Roma non-governmental organisation in Timiş County. He stresses the people who decided to come back to Romania did so only because of the promised €3,600.

“There isn’t any written document between the French and the Romanian government about the expelled people, but the villagers still wait for the money,” he says.

Roma in France

- 400,000 Roma are living in France, 95% with French citizenship

France expelled 10,000 Roma in 2009

- More than 8,000 Roma were deported from January to September 2010

- In August 2010 alone, 128 Roma camps were dismantled in France

- In the same month, 979 Roma were sent back to Romania and Bulgaria, 828 returned voluntarily

Source: European Parliament 2010 resolution on Roma expulsions

According to French immigration and integration officials in Romania, 488 Roma projects have received the maximum funding of €3,660 since 2006.

They stress these funds are not cash awards for individuals per se, but rather assistance for projects including the creation of farms and other small businesses such as clothing and food sales. The idea is to enable returnees to ensure a “regular income, which helps them stay and live in their country”.

“The OFII…is not intended to replace the inclusion programmes for Romania’s returnees who are the responsibility of the Romanian authorities, with assistance from the European Union,” an OFII spokesman is careful to note.

Payouts ‘circumvent due process’

However, Victoria Vasey, legal director at the European Roma Rights Centre based in Budapest, is highly critical of the voluntary deportation fee.

“These payments, for the large part, are a way of seeking to circumvent due process and to create an illusion that people are leaving voluntarily. It is rarely the case that people are leaving voluntarily. They either feel they have no other option or they simply do not understand what is happening to them,” she says.

Marian Mandache, human rights coordinator with Romani Criss, the biggest Roma NGO in Romania, is also critical. He says the €3,600 payment system is simply “inefficient” and could be used to fund “integration programmes in Romania and Bulgaria, but mainly in France”.

“The Roma left for economic reasons, especially because they are marginalised in Romania. Here, it is difficult to live and they couldn’t obtain the money to survive. They left because of poverty and to try for a better life,” he says.

Many of the original, 2008 Roma returnees simply went back to France or other western EU states, having concluded they were the victims of a scam.

In 2010, another wave of Roma expulsions took place following an emergency meeting of the French government on July 28, convened in the wake of the killing of a Roma of French nationality by a gendarme during a car chase near Saint-Aignan in central France.

French officials decided to close around 300 illegal camps inhabited by travellers and Roma, and to deport the inhabitants back to their homelands – mainly Romania and Bulgaria. Soon after the July 28 meeting, France began mass deportations, later citing security concerns.

This time, the way the French authorities dealt with the deportations sparked international disapproval and soured relations between the Romanian and French governments.

Viviane Reding, the vice-president of the EC and commissioner for justice and citizens’ rights, confirmed she would recommend beginning proceedings that could see France appear before the European Court of Justice. In response, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, suggested Reding should welcome Roma to her own country, Luxembourg.

Viviane Reding, the EU commissioner for justice, has given all member states until the end of 2011 to publish Roma inclusion strategie| Photo by Вени Марковски, source Wikipedia

The European Commission, EC, announced in the autumn of 2010 its intention to launch infringement proceedings against France for disobeying the EU Directive of free movement.

In late September 2010, the EC began infringement proceedings against France, only to bring the action to a halt two weeks later. According to a statement by Reding, France decided to modify its legislation, making the laws fully compliant with EU directives.

Eric Besson, the French immigration minister, stressed his country would implement a €1m programme to help reintegrate Roma returnees into their home countries.

However, France has steadfastly refused to suspend its deportation programme and other EU states - including Finland and Belgium –followed suit and also deported Roma to their home countries, especially Romania and Bulgaria.

On January 27, Victor Boştinaru, a Romanian member of the European Parliament, denounced the move to stop EC proceedings against France, saying discrimination had “become a new value of the EU”.

As the EC warns member states they must present national plans on Roma inclusion that meet the requirements of the EU Roma Strategy by the end of 2011, many Roma remain trapped in a cycle of poverty, immigration and deportation.

More than 2,300 km east of Brussels, Cornel, Pavel and Marcus are among the very few Romanian Roma still waiting at home for the €3,600 euros they claim they were promised.

Others, like most of the Berini villagers, took the French promise of cash to be simply a trick, and went back to France and other EU states just a few days after they were expelled.

Petru Zoltan, a Bucharest-based journalist, contributed to this report.

This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence’s Alumni Initiative, established and funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation.

Fellow Bio

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Adrian Mogos

Adrian Mogoș is a freelancer and a member of the Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism and International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

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Roma Decade

Twelve countries, including several Balkan states, have signed up to the European Roma Decade 2005-2015 initiative. Halfway through the decade, has any real progress been made?

Meet the Journalists

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Nikoleta Popkostadinova

Nikoleta Popkostadinova from Sofia, Bulgaria, is a freelance journalist specializing in social affairs.  She has worked as a reporter for the Bulgarian weekly Capital and Transitions Online, and as an editor for the monthly magazine Vice

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Barbara Matejcic

Barbara Matejcic from Zagreb, Croatia, is a freelance journalist specialising in social issues

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Adrian Mogos

Adrian Mogoș is a freelancer and a member of the Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism and International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

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Mircea Dan Opris

Mircea Dan Opris is a Romanian investigative reporter and photographer for the national daily newspaper Jurnalul National

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19 Apr 2011 / 09:56

French Payouts Tempt More Roma Immigrants

Adrian Mogos

The village of Berini lies 20 km south of the city of Timişoara in western Romania. The first historical record of the village, whose name means lamb in English, dates back to the 14th century.

18 Apr 2011 / 11:11

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Nikoleta Popkostadinova

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