Saturday, October 2, 2010


Ujjal Dosanjh: France's rejection of Roma community 'absurd'

By Ujjal Dosanjh,
Vancouver Sun
October 1, 2010

Dosanjh, a former B.C. premier, writes: "In the outskirts of Paris in the early part of the 21st century, one would not expect to see a facility surrounded by 3-metre-high cement walls that looks more like a prison, claiming to be run for integrating a despised, marginalized, and persecuted minority. 

In the outskirts of Paris in the early part of the 21st century, one would not expect to see a facility surrounded by 3-metre-high cement walls that looks more like a prison, claiming to be run for integrating a despised, marginalized, and persecuted minority. Yet that is exactly what I saw in France in mid-September, in a facility where some Roma are housed for “integration.” It is called a “village d’insertion” (insertion village) by the French government. It is little more than an isolation site. The site is guarded by security guards posted at the gate. The residents are not permitted visitors in the compound. Not even family members. Some days, trucks arrive. Men and women are separated, and then taken to places, one assumes to the houses of the rich, to do cleaning or yard work. The residents were reluctant to talk about this unpaid labour, justified because it allegedly teaches skills for “integration.”

The school-aged children in the “village” who should be at school are simply loitering inside and outside the “village.” The Roma who “live” in the “village” pay 40 euros a month for the privilege. Yet they have no work permits to earn even one euro. Therefore they are forced to scour the dumpsters, beg, borrow, or steal. Hence the French government accepts the proceeds of such labour (and sometimes crime). This “village” is one of several for the Roma from Bulgaria and Romania who otherwise live in the shanty camps in places like Saint Denis in the outskirts of Paris.

Roma in the “village” are chosen from such shanty camps. I visited one such camp, with conditions no better than the slums of the developing world, maybe a slight improvement on the conditions in Slumdog Millionaire. The Roma have fled abuse, persecution, segregation in schools, and quite often violence in some other European countries – all members of the European Union. Close to this shanty camp, was a cleared out campsite next to a huge pile of debris of an earlier camp bulldozed by French police.

The police arrived early one morning around 4 o’clock, without warning or notice. They asked the men, women and children to step out of their shanties, with just the clothes on their backs, and no possessions. The several dozen heavily armed police with bulldozers in then proceeded to bulldoze the shanties as has been done scores of times in recent months all over France. Understandably, some of the Roma would accept the government offer of 300 euros to go back to Romania or Bulgaria. Others refused and simply walked another 2- to 300 yards and built another shanty camp, which is where I met up with them. It is from among the ranks of the frightened and bewildered Roma, after such bulldozings, that the French authorities choose “volunteers” to go into the “villages d’insertion” for “integration” into French society. I learned from the Roma in the “village” that they volunteered in the face of the alternative of returning to Romania or Bulgaria.

Ironically, in the shanty camp, many children were attending school, while in the “village,” many were not. So much for the “village” enhancing “integration.” What is most objectionable about the conduct of the French authorities, however, is that these midnight bulldozings of shanty campsites and deportations of the Roma en masse (ostensibly being paid to leave, but without any due process) occur under the shadow of heavily armed police and bulldozers.

This, on a continent where the Nazis put to death at least half a million Roma during the second world war in various camps. Some estimates put the death toll – from being sent to gas chambers, otherwise killed or starved and tortured to death – at1 to 1.5 million. The Roma were brought as slaves from India a thousand years ago to what is now Afghanistan/Turkey. They then trekked to Europe at different times and via different routes. They were subsequently enslaved for a couple hundred years in some parts of Europe and have continued to face discrimination, persecution, segregation, social exclusion, and at times violence in what is now the European Union.

So the recent expulsions of Roma from Germany, Italy, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden, and now France are the latest manifestations of the exclusion and mistreatment of the Roma numbering 12 to 14 million in Europe.

The European Commission has reprimanded France in not following the European law of free movement in the case of the Roma and has given France a deadline of October 15 to comply. France’s Interior Minister declared victory as the Commission refused to pronounce on the specific targeting of ethnic Roma for expulsions despite the infamous memo from a Ministerial Chief of Staff indicating that Roma removal was a high priority and the actual evidence of Roma camps being bulldozed by heavily armed police, without warning, in the middle of the night. If the European Commission needs the evidence of targeted ethnic discrimination against Roma, it only needs to visit the campsites I saw in mid-September. The European Commission has acted, but feebly. More needs to be done.

The French government’s assertion that the “village d’insertion” is for integration is laughable, if not absurd. The French government is not engaged in any Project Integration, but Project Exclusion.

Ujjal Dosanjh is the MP for Vancouver South and former Premier of BC

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