Following a crackdown on illegal camps in France, around 700 Roma are set to be deported. The first have already arrived in their native countries. The move has drawn criticism from within France and beyond.
Roma faced police raids on their camps in France
The first group of Roma to be expelled from France landed in Romania on Thursday afternoon after police raids on their camps as part of a government crackdown.
Two flights, from Lyon and Paris, arrived at Bucharest’s Aurel Vlaicu airport within an hour of each other. A total of 93 Roma were due to be deported over the course of the day.
According to French officials, 79 Roma were flown back on the initial flight under a "voluntary return procedure." They were to receive 300 euros ($385) in financial assistance to start a new life, plus 100 euros per child. In total, around 700 Roma are expected to be sent back to Romania and Bulgaria by the end of August.
Those who do not agree instead receive an order to leave France within a month or face forced repatriation - without the money.
French law allows EU citizens to live in France for up to three months before requiring a work or study visa and proof of income. However, as members of the European Union, citizens of Romania and Bulgaria are able to travel freely between member nations.
This means that despite their expulsion from France, many of the Roma could simply return, and could then conceivably volunteer to be flown out again and receive another 300 euros. But France is close to implementing a system that would prevent this sort of double dipping.
"In a few weeks we'll have our new biometric system 'Oscar' in place," said Eric Besson, France's immigration minister. "Then we can prevent people who have been expelled from returning to France and getting renewed financial assistance."
Critics say the police raids were too much
Criticized from within
The Roma being expelled from France were identified in a summer crackdown on illegal camps around France as part of a broad effort to fight crime. French President Nicolas Sarkozy spearheaded the initiative, which has drawn criticism for appearing to target Roma and other travelling minorities. Critics say it is merely a political maneuver.
"I think that this government believes you have to become more radical when you look bad in the polls, or when you want to win an election," said David Assouline from the opposition Socialist party.
The opposition isn't the only critical voice of the French government's extra efforts to expel Roma. Members of Sarkozy's own UMP party have also expressed their concern.
"When you see how a prefect of the Paris police, armed to the teeth, is sent out at six in the morning to pull families out of their homes […] and when women are threatened with having their children taken away from them… that is not the French republic!" said Jean-Pierre Grand, a UMP lawmaker.
Sarkozy has been accused of targeting Roma
Complying with EU rules
The French government has defended its actions, emphasizing the fact that flights carrying expellees to Romania or Bulgaria are not new. According to the French interior ministry, 10,000 Roma were sent back to their native countries in 2009 alone, and the flights have been going on for years.
The European Union is monitoring the situation to ensure that France complies with regulations regarding freedom of movement within the EU.
Bernard Valero, a spokesman for the French foreign ministry, said a European directive "expressly allows for restrictions on the right to move freely for reasons of public order, public security and public health" and that France's actions fully comply with European rules.
Author: Daniela Junghans, Matt Zuvela (afp/dpa)
Editor: Rob Turner