Gennevilliers, France • The camps weren’t much to begin with: They had no electricity or running water. Grocery carts served as makeshift grills. Rats ran rampant and fleas gnawed on young and old alike.
But they were home — and they were better than the new reality for thousands of Gypsies who have been forced into hiding after France launched its latest campaign this month to drive them from their camps.
The last big sweep came in 2010, when France expelled Gypsies to Romania and Bulgaria. Then the European Commission imposed sanctions and thousands of French came out to protest in sympathy for the Gypsies, also known as the Roma.
This time, the Gypsies left quietly, gathering their belongings and heading into the woods with plans to re-emerge when the coast is clear.
“Why did God even create us, if Gypsies are to live like this?” cried 35-year-old Babica, as bulldozers moved in to tear down the camp in Gennevilliers, on the outskirts of Paris. Like other Roma quoted in this story, he did not give his last name out of fear of arrest or deportation.
Most of the Gypsies have no plans to return to Romania, where their citizenship would at least allow them to educate their children and treat their illnesses. Amid a dismal economic environment across Europe, they say, begging in France is still more lucrative than trying to find work where there is none.
France has cast the most recent demolitions as necessary for public health and safety. It’s hard to pinpoint how many camps were taken down. At least five around Paris were demolished and several hundred of their residents were ordered out; others came down in Lille and Lyon.
This time, France’s Interior Ministry says, the camps were demolished in accordance with legal guidelines agreed upon with the European Union.
“Respect for human dignity is a constant imperative of all public action, but the difficulties and local health risks posed by the unsanitary camps needed to be addressed,” the Interior Ministry said. In no case, the government said, “did the removals take the form of collective expulsion, which is forbidden by law.”
Mina Andreeva, spokeswoman for the European Commission, said the executive body is studying the situation.
The Roma Forum, which has ties to the 47-member Council of Europe, condemned the evictions, saying they contradict “President (Francois) Hollande’s commitment from his election campaign to not expel Roma families without proposing alternative accommodation.” It’s not clear whether France consulted any Roma before moving in on the camps.
Human Rights Watch said 240 Romanian Gypsies evicted from camps around Lyon in southern France left last week on a charter flight to Romania after accepting 300 euros for a “voluntary return.”
The French government has offered no hard numbers on how many Roma camps have come down, or how many Roma have been evicted. The government does not refer to the ethnic group by name, citing only “illicit encampments.” Each Gypsy camp houses a couple dozen to hundreds of people, depending on the ancestral network.
At Gennevilliers, none of the Roma had much of an idea where they would sleep the night their camps came down.
“The boys are out looking for land to sleep on tonight,” said 24-year-old Senti, the first of his family to finish high school. “Tomorrow morning the bulldozers are coming to finish things off.”
Across France in the southern town of Beziers, news reports said two Roma women were hit by a car and killed Tuesday night as they tried to reach a makeshift camp on the edge of a highway bypass after dark. The regional administration confirmed the accident to AP, but not the victims’ identity.
According to Human Rights Watch, the estimated number of Eastern European Roma in France has remained steady for several years, at around 15,000, despite the expulsions. As EU citizens, Roma have the right to travel to France, but must get papers to work or live here in the long term, all but impossible even in the best economic times.
Few Roma speak more than a few words of French; most harbor a deep mistrust of legal authorities born of generations of discrimination.
They come mostly to harvest crops or beg from tourists. They pay no taxes. The state offers them no medical care, education or basic services.
Discrimination against Roma goes back hundreds of years, culminating in the Nazi Holocaust that saw up to 25 percent of their population killed in concentration camps, according to the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
“Almost every family here is the family of a Holocaust survivor,” said Michelle Kelso, a Roma expert with George Washington University who translated interviews at a Gypsy camps around Paris for The Associated Press. “Their grandparents were deported to camps in World War II.”
Gypsies like Senti and his younger sister Venetia, who attended school until forced into marriage at age 17, once hoped to be a beacon of change for Gypsies. But they face the same obstacles of previous generations, including the unyielding social mores of their own community: suspicion of outsiders, teen marriage for girls and an internal system of justice that recognizes neither courts nor official documents.
The Roma Education Fund says about 25 percent of Roma are illiterate, and the United Nations says as many as 50 percent of Roma do not complete primary school.
Venetia, 23, begs at the Eiffel Tower in jeans and a T-shirt from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. She changes back into her long Gypsy skirt before returning to her camp to meet her husband, who collects scrap metal. She said she usually makes 10 to 20 euros a day during the tourist season, enough to keep her 2-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son fed and clothed.
They’ve been deported before and she expects it will happen again, perhaps later this week when her encampment comes down.
“I would like to work maybe in a school or at a bank,” she said in English, which she learned in high school in Romania.
“I want something else for my children. I want a different future.”