France: “They said they would have killed us if we stayed”

Forced eviction of a Roma community, Marseille, France, July 2013.© Raphaël Bianchi.

Attacks, discrimination, violent evictions, homelessness and extreme poverty. Life for the 20,000 Roma in France – most of them migrants – is a far cry from the idyllic image the country tries to portray.

Most Roma migrants in France live in informal settlements and have little or no access to water and sanitation. They also suffer from entrenched discrimination and are often the target of brutal attacks by mobs and even police officers.

Some French politicians have said Roma live a “peculiar lifestyle” and are “unwilling to integrate”. In September 2013, in an interview with Radio France International, Manuel Valls, the Minister of Interior said: “Those people (Roma migrants) have lifestyles that are extremely different from ours. For this reason, they should return to Romania or Bulgaria.”

On 27 September 2012, an angry mob said to be carrying guns violently attacked a group of 50 Roma living in Les Créneaux, a neighbourhood in northern Marseille. They threatened to set fire to their belongings. The mob wanted them out.

“They said they would have killed us if we stayed. Women and children were terrified and started crying. I called the police, they came after a few minutes and told us we had to leave immediately. We just took some of our stuff and then we rushed away. They immediately set alight the rest of our stuff,” one of the Roma residents told Amnesty International.

The police have said the investigation into the incident is still ongoing but that they were not able to identify those responsible for the attack because they had already gone by the time they arrived.
In a separate incident in March 2013, in the area of St. Louis in Marseille, a Romani woman had to be taken to hospital after a mob arrived at the squat where 10 Roma were living and attacked them with tear gas.

The Roma decided not to report the incident to the police as they were scared of what the attackers, who lived in the same area, would do to them.

Roma people rarely report attacks to the police as they do not trust them. After all, police themselves have been implicated in violence against Roma.

“Roma people are really scared of the police. I usually take kids to the hospital for medical treatment and they are afraid whenever they see the police,” said S, a Roma man who lived in an informal settlement and now works as a social worker.

Homeless Roma living in Paris are more likely to be harassed, than offered any assistance, by police who want them out of city centre.

Gheorghe, a Romani man who sleeps on Place de la République with his wife and three children, said: “A police officer comes to the square weekly and throws our stuff away… our blankets, mattresses and clothes.”