LA COURNEUVE, France (AP) — Police, working swiftly in the pouring rain, cleared out one of France's biggest and oldest Roma camps on Thursday, dismantling a sprawling network of makeshift shelters that housed hundreds of people.
After the 2½-hour-long evacuation, some 50 people milled about on the streets of La Courneuve, despite official promises that no one would be left in the streets.
Hugues Besancenot, secretary general of the prefecture of the Seine-Saint-Denis region northeast of Paris, said around 60 pregnant women, young children and disabled camp residents received vouchers for urgent housing. The others were given a homeless shelter hotline.
About 200 people had been living in the camp, which sprang up in 2009, he said. However, associations put the number at about 300, noting that not all are present year-round.
"They did nothing for us. They said there's no place for me," said Brindus Dan, who lived in the camp with his wife and three children, including a 6-month-old baby, for four years.
Residents had six months to prepare for the evacuation since a court ordered the camp shut last February. Police gave a final warning Tuesday, Besancenot said. Riot police lined the street leading to the camp, blocking the demolition of the shantytown from the public.
About 50 people, including mothers with infants, stood dazed and drenched on a nearby sidewalk, or under the awning of a closed cafe. One family of eight, with an infant in a stroller, echoed Dan's assertion that no one offered them help.
"For them to end up on the sidewalk, under the rain, will not help change the situation," said Livia Otal, Doctors of the World coordinator for shantytowns. "To be here today, does not mean that in the next two or three weeks they will not be starting over in another slum."
About 20,000 Roma, also known as Gypsies, live in shantytowns around France, according to Manon Fillonneau of the Romeurope Collective.
About 4,000 to 5,000 Roma lived in 30 camps for the last 10 years — with some 20 of them evacuated, according to the mayor's office.
Roma face routine discrimination and evacuations, with expulsions in recent months in about 30 shantytowns, including in July in the town of Chelles, east of Paris where some 500 people lost their homes, Fillonneau said.
Their camps tend to lack water and electricity, and authorities often cite sanitary reasons for dismantling them.
Authorities reserved 12 lodgings for residents in extreme need.
A statement from La Courneuve Mayor Gilles Poux, who pressed for the camp's closure in 2013, said no "human, durable response to the distress of these Roma families" has been forthcoming from French or European authorities, even though Roma are from European Union countries, mainly Romania. He is seeking a "veritable effort of solidarity" organized by the state to share the burden.
Associated Press writer Angela Charlton contributed from Paris.
This story has been corrected to show that around 60 Roma received housing vouchers, not the other evicted camp residents. This story also corrects the spelling of the town to La Courneuve.