Roma Expulsion Hints Of Racial Discrimination

Thousands of Roma migrants from Eastern Europe have been expelled from France in the past months. The controversial crackdown is sparking outrage across the continent and harsh criticism from the European Union. But the forced expulsions are yet another chapter in the long discrimination against the Roma minority. Earlier this week in Milan, Italy a member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's ruling party announced the government's commitment to dismantling all Roma camps. Host Michel Martin discusses the forced deportations with Rob Kushen, executive director of the European Roma Rights Center and Prof, and Patrick Weil, a historian at the University of Paris-Sorbonne and a visiting professor at Yale Law School.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we talk with the high-profile defense lawyer who has made it his mission to fight to clear the wrongly-convicted. He and his work are portrayed in a new film, "Conviction." We'll be speaking with Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project in just a few minutes.

But first we want to talk about Europe's long and strained relations with the Roma. Most recently the governments of Italy and France have drawn headlines for their governments' decision to dismantle several Roma encampments and deport its residents.

This week in Milan a member of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's ruling party affirmed the Italian government's commitment to dismantling that city's largest authorized Roma camp and he added that, quote, "our final goal is to have zero gypsy camps in Milan." And he prefaced the statement by saying that these are dark-skinned people, not Europeans like you and me.

And in neighboring France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered the expulsion of thousands of Roma migrants in recent months, stirring debate across the European Union. We wanted to talk more about this so we've called Rob Kushen. He is the executive director of the European Roma Rights Center. Also with us is Professor Patrick Weil. He's a historian at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. He's currently a visiting professor at Yale Law School and author of, "How to be French: Nationality in the Making Since 1789".

And I welcome you both, thank you so much for joining us.

Professor PATRICK WEIL (History, University of Paris-Sorbonne): Thank you for having me here.

Mr. ROB KUSHEN (Executive Director, European Roma Rights Center): Yes, and thanks for covering this story.

MARTIN: So Rob Kushen, if you would just sort of set the table for us. How many Roma live in France today and what are their everyday lives like? Or what at least were they like before the expulsions took place?

Mr. KUSHEN: Well, in France we distinguish between two groups of people. There's a group of French nationals who are referred to in French as gens de voyages, or travelers, and there are approximately 400,000 to 500,000 of these people. And in addition, there are an estimated 15,000 or so Romani migrants from other countries in Europe who are not French citizens. And conditions for them vary obviously with such a large group.

There are some who are living in formal housing, and formally employed and have a lifestyle that wouldn't distinguish them from others in France. And there are some who, kind of at the other extreme end, are living in kind of makeshift shanties on the streets of cities or on the outskirts of town without any formal employment.

MARTIN: And how did the expulsions start and exactly how are they taking place?

Mr. KUSHEN: Well, the expulsions have actually been taking place for a few years. Ever since Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union in 2007, France has been undertaking to expel the Roma who have traveled from those countries to France. And France has been seeking to return these people almost since the beginning. It's only very recently, in the summer, that the French government enunciated a policy at the highest level that targeted Romani migrants for expulsion as well as targeting French national Roma or travelers for eviction from illegal settlements.

MARTIN: And is the stated reason their ethnicity?

Mr. KUSHEN: From my perspective, there's no doubt that this was an ethnically-based policy despite the fact that the government has now stated that no, it does not intend to single out Roma. But the French documents explicitly refer to Roma.

MARTIN: Professor Weil, let's bring you into the conversation, and as I mentioned earlier, there's been a variety of reactions throughout the European Union. Some countries have expressed support for the deportations. But the leadership of the EU itself has voiced strong criticism that - this is Viviane Reding, the European justice commissioner. Here's a short clip of what she had to say.

Ms. VIVIANE REDING: (European Justice Commissioner): I personally have been appalled by a situation which gave the impression that the people are being removed from a member state of the European Union just because they belong to an ethnic minority. This is a situation I have hoped Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War.

MARTIN: Those are very strong words. It clearly evokes the specter of ethnic cleansing. So I wanted to ask two questions. First of all, what are the circumstances in France that has led the Sarkozy government to this point? And is there any precedence for this?

Prof. WEIL: Well President Sarkozy is facing a very high level of unpopularity that was expressed recently in the regional election in March, where he lost every region of the mainland France except one. And this election has seen also the resuming of the influence of the extreme-right party, the National Front. And President Sarkozy, who will probably seek a second term, is trying to regain the vote of this extreme-right citizen by, in fact, taking their discourses and sometime part of their proposal and putting them on the agenda.

So the commissioner who evoked the Second World War period was partially true and partially wrong. It is not true is that deporting Roms or any other Roman or Bulgarian back to their country will not lead to the same execution that has occurred for the Jews when they were deported to other European country during Second World War. Romania and Bulgaria are democracy and they will treat these people as citizen and they will do it.

MARTIN: What is your sense of the response among the French population, among the broader French public to these deportations? Do you sense that the public is as divided as the EU more broadly is? Or do you think overall this is a popular move, and if it is, why?

Prof. WEIL: Well, you know, in all economic crises you have groups, individual who mobilize against minority. Its very rare. It has never happen in our history when it was a democratic history, that the chief of state is using that kind of rhetoric.

MARTIN: I see. So Rob Kushen, if you would, just give us some sort of concluding thoughts here about where you think this is going. And I did want to ask, we talked about and it is often when this issue is discussed, people say this is a group that has been historically discriminated against and persecuted in a number of countries. But there are also people who point out that what they call the Roma lifestyle or way of life is incompatible with some of the countries in which the Roma are now living. When people say that what are they talking about and how do you see this issue going forward?

Mr. KUSHEN: Well, first of all to address the lifestyle question, I think there are a lot of misconceptions about Roma, including the misconception that they are a nomadic people who are not suited to living in the 21st century. The fact is that most Roma are settled, so it is the exception rather than the rule that Roma travel. There are still some in France that do, for example, but for the most part, they're settled and the migration that we're seeing is driven by structural poverty and discrimination in the countries from which Roma are coming.

MARTIN: Well, what is the next step here? Is there any legal challenge to these deportations? What is the next step?

Mr. KUSHEN: Well, there are legal challenges that have been ongoing within France and that will continue and in fact, as recently as August there were tribunals in France that held that some of the specific deportations were illegal. The European Commission is continuing to investigate France, has called on France to change its law. And the good news out of all of this, if there is any, is that French actions have elevated the issue in the mind of public in a way that hasnt happened in a few years.

Prof. WEIL: True, yeah.

Mr. KUSHEN: And the various European bodies are trying to take some positive steps. The European Commission is finally coming around to the idea of a Europe-wide Roma strategy to address the exclusion that Roma face. And so hopefully, that will lead to some positive measures to ensure that Roma can participate fully in society wherever they may live.

MARTIN: Rob Kushen is the executive director of the European Roma Rights Center. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Professor Patrick Weil is a historian at University of Paris at Sorbonne. He's a visiting professor at Yale Law School and the author of "How to be French: Nationality in the Making Since 1789." And he joined us on the phone from his home office in New Haven, Connecticut.

Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. KUSHEN: Thanks very much, Michel.

Prof. WEIL: Thank you very much.

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