French officials have defended the controversial expulsion of dozens of Roma, but critics say sending migrants back is not a long-term solution. The expelled people are EU citizens and could return to France at any time.
Most Roma need permits to stay in France more than three months
French Immigration Minister Eric Besson has defended the nation's treatment of foreigners in light of the ongoing expulsion of dozens of Roma to Romania. In a television interview on France 2, Besson said that France had no lessons to learn.
"France is the country in Europe which most respects the rights of foreigners, notably foreigners in irregular situations, or - let's be more more modest - one of the most respectful countries," Besson said in an interview with France 2 television.
On Thursday, France commenced its plans to repatriate hundreds of Roma living in makeshift camps across the country. Two flights from Lyon and Paris, carrying dozens of Roma, arrived at Bucharest airport on Thursday afternoon, according to Romanian border police officials. Further flights are expected Friday.
In total, France plans to expel around 700 Roma by the end of August.
Need for integration
Other EU member states have criticized France's strategy.
There are about 15,000 Roma of Eastern European origin in France
"What has happened in Paris shows that we must have an integration plan across Europe for Roma citizens," Romanian President Traian Basescu told reporters Thursday.
Meanwhile, Italy's main anti-immigrant party, the Northern League, praised France's expulsion of scores of Roma as a model.
Claudio d'Amico, a lawmaker with the Northern League, said he believed "the line adopted by France on repatriating the Roma is the right line to follow."
According to French officials, the 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. Those who do not agree instead receive an order to leave France within a month or face forced repatriation - without the money.
Besson said France did not have a lesson to learn
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.
Despite their expulsion from France, many of the Roma could simply return, and conceivably volunteer to be flown out again and receive another 300 euros. But France is close to implementing a fingerprinting system it hopes will prevent double-dippping.
"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."
Criticized from within
The expelled Roma 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.
Flights are not new
Europe has about 10 to 12 million Roma
The French government has emphasized 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: Sarah Harman (afp/dpa)
Editor: Matt Hermann