Roma Exodus

I have just finished working on a project about Roma people of Romanian origin living in Paris. I accompanied them in Romania, on their trip back to France, and in Paris, documenting their daily activities.

When Viorel and his parents decided to go back to Paris I accompanied them all the way. In Paris we spent almost one week together. They live in an abandoned building in Villejuif, on the outskirts of Paris.

Every day they go to Belleville, where they try to sell old clothes. And every day they are chased away by the French police, but in a way I have never seen them use when dealing with the African or Arab immigrants who peddle fake brand names or similar goods.

To the French, the Roma are a Trojan horse. Citing public order, they are getting ready to pass a shameful law against a small, mainly orthodox Roma community, too poor and helpless to respond.

But this law is meant for the offspring of the Arab and north-African immigrants who caused major riots in both 2005 and 2007. To target them, given their numbers and religion would have been too crazy even for Sarkozy. But once the law is passed, it will apply to all, indiscriminately.

As France is adopting almost racist measures against Roma, I believe it is our moral duty to act now and not to let this slide, especially in the light of the French parliament preparing to adopt a law to back up their plans to deport Roma immigrants based on their ethnicity. This will create a precedent and it will only be a matter of time before other countries will follow the French lead.

Moving them from point A to point B will not solve the issue. People seem to forget that we are not talking about immigrants from outside the EU, seeking refuge, but about EU citizens with full rights. Given French pressure and the international agenda, I believe that the favourable momentum initially created by the international organisms, when they condemned French actions, will soon fade away.

In Romania, racism is a big issue, and so I would like to be able to tell the world that I did everything in my power, not just to defend Roma rights, but also ours, as Romanians. I cannot hope for much, if at anything, from my own government. Their racism is all too familiar. Just a few years ago, our elected president, Traian Basescu, made a racist remark, calling a journalist a “stinking gipsy”, not to mention his recent comments, when he claimed that Sarkozy’s actions were somehow justified. It is very sad for me to see people demonstrating for Roma rights in the UK or US, whereas over here nobody lifts a finger. On the contrary, they silently or even openly welcome Sarkozy’s decision.

In a way, as a Romanian, I also feel discriminated against by France’s actions against the Roma. Sending them back to Romania, without any plan to solve this issue, knowing that back home there is little, if any, sympathy for their situation, is their way of saying that the Roma are good enough for the majority of Romanians (second-class EU citizens), but not good enough for the French (first-class EU citizens). For many years, the French have been awarding gold medals at Cannes to films and television commercials depicting the life of the Roma. Not one of those movies presented them as ordinary law-abiding citizens. It seems that it is easier to award a prize and claim you are a champion of human rights than to find real solutions to real problems. To me this is the highest form of hypocrisy.

In a futile attempt, I wrote a letter to our foreign affairs minister, Mr. Teodor Baconschi, urging him to take action. His reaction was to show the letter to another photographer, asking him who I was…

The failure to apply the law, for various reasons that include fear and bribes, and complicity in the situation in which most of Roma do not to send their kids to school are the reasons for the current situation. One hundred years ago, only a tiny handful of Romanian peasants sent their kids to school. One hundred years later, almost all the majority ethnic group go to school. Some believe the Roma will be a lost cause forever. I say: we do not need to wait another hundred years to integrate them. By applying the same laws to them as we do to the majority, we can persuade them to send their kids to school. Education has liberated the rest of us and without doubt it will have the same effect on the Roma too… But we cannot expect them to send their kids to school when they have no running water, food, or proper clothing. We have to help.

When we joined EU, the Roma issues became a European issue. France and all the other EU countries must now become part of the solution. They can no longer wash their hands and claim this is only a Romanian issue. We have failed and we have to admit it. Now, they can’t hope for help from any other quarter except from the UN, EU and other similar organisations. This is why I believe it’s important to tell their story and to stand up for their rights.

If necessary, infringement measures must be adopted against both France and Romania, before this issue escalates into a major problem.

I have already done everything that it was in my power to do. Now it is up to those who claim they represent the Roma to make a stand against human rights abuses, to put this shameful event back on media agenda, and to see that justice is served.

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