PARIS (AP) — France's treatment of thousands of Roma migrants who have been expelled to Eastern Europe came under new scrutiny Wednesday from the European Commission and a leading rights group, after France's top security official said the migrants had a "duty to return to their homeland."
Amnesty International said more than 10,000 Roma, also known as Gypsies, had been evicted from French squatter camps from January through August, with many forced to return home to Romania and Bulgaria, despite European Union rules requiring free movement for all EU citizens.
Many Roma in France live in makeshift camps set up on vacant lots, lacking running water or electricity. Without regular documentation of their residence, they have a hard time enrolling children into school, applying for subsidized housing, getting health care through the national system or finding permanent work.
Amnesty said those problems are compounded with each forced evacuation, pushing the Roma further out to society's margins. In releasing its tally of evictions — including one as recent as Sept. 18 — Amnesty brought together a doctor and a teacher who had both cared for Roma from families they said wanted to join French society, contrary to the image of Roma as resistant to integration.
"What we see on the ground is a break with the stereotypes of social and sanitary problems, and other clichés that are being invoked now," said Jean-Francois Corty, a doctor with Medecins du Monde. "Most of the people we see want to integrate, want work, want their children in schools and want the benefits of modern medicine."
Roma started arriving in Europe from India in the 14th century and there are an estimated 8 million in Europe, with the largest population in Romania. Facing discrimination and bleak prospects in Romania, many head west to France and other richer European countries.
There are an estimated 20,000 Roma in France, a population that has remained stable over several years despite repeated attempts by both Socialist and conservative governments to persuade them — sometimes forcibly — to return home.
Many French blame the Roma for a rise in petty crime and an influx of street beggars, especially in tourist areas of Paris, where crime rings involving children have been broken up, and where subway announcements warn every few minutes against pickpockets.
In Sweden, police this week acknowledged compiling a secret, illegal registry of more than 4,000 Roma, including children, coming under criticism from politicians who said it was unconstitutional to register people by ethnicity.
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls provoked anger Tuesday for saying the Roma migrants had a "duty to return to their homeland" — and despite a wave of criticism, refused to back down Wednesday.
Valls said the Roma had failed to integrate and that France had no responsibility to them.
"We don't have the obligation to welcome these populations, we need to say it clearly and calmly. It is not about stigmatizing a population, but facing the truth," he said.
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia program director, offered a different interpretation.
"The Roma have a duty to live in misery. That's how the comments of the interior minister should be translated," Dalhuisen said.
In Romania, Marian Mandache, director of rights group the Romani Criss, called the French minister's comments a "populist ruse."
"The French minister is discriminating against an ethnic group, it is a breach of the right to free circulation and a breach of other human rights," she told The Associated Press.
The EU justice chief, Viviane Reding, shot back Wednesday at the French government, accusing it of holding Romania and Bulgaria hostage to domestic French politics. Immigration is a sensitive issue amid campaigning for upcoming municipal elections across France. Reding accused the French government of using tensions over the Roma to distract voters from more serious economic problems.
"There's an election in the air in France," Reding said on France-Info radio. "Every time they don't want to talk about important things like the budget or debts, they find the Roma."
In a rare statement commenting on both news reports and Reding's remarks, the French Interior Ministry said Valls "attentively ensures respect of national and European rules."
The minister also noted that "the Romanian government has several times reiterated that the responsibility for integrating Roma of Romanian nationality was first of all the business of Romanian authorities," the statement said.
Raf Casert and Juergen Baetz in Brussels, Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania, contributed to this report.
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