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When police arrived at Alexandra Caldarar’s makeshift home near Grenoble at about 6am last month the Roma woman discovered that her time in France was up.
Officials told the 25-year old that they would return to take her into custody if she did not leave “voluntarily”. So she agreed to sign papers she did not understand, accepted a €300 ($404) handout and boarded an aeroplane back to her native Romania.
“We had to leave some of my son’s clothes behind in the rush. Later the authorities came and demolished everything,” she says cuddling her 10-month old infant son, who was born in France.
France’s campaign to expel Roma migrants has unleashed intense debate across the European Union, which is struggling to reconcile the right of free movement with sometimes populist-tinged concerns about crime and immigrant integration.
Although Roma communities are found in countries across central and eastern Europe, a particularly intense spotlight has shone on Romania, which joined the EU in 2007 and is home to the union’s largest Roma population – officially some 535,000 but thought to be roughly four times higher.
The bulk of France’s Roma deportees have returned here, including 34 families in Petrosani, a once proud mining community in the Jiu Valley, about a six-hour drive west of the capital Bucharest.
Roma account for about 3,000 of Petrosani’s 40,000 residents. Many live in “Colonie”, a community of tiny former mining cottages lacking a proper sewage system where Roma children instinctively greet strangers with cries of “Bonjour”.
The Roma once found plentiful jobs in Petrosani’s mines but these began closing in 2005 and the social and economic fallout was magnified by a prolonged recession.
Eleven per cent of Petrosani’s residents are unemployed and the proportion of Roma out of work is thought to be considerably higher.
In France Ms Caldarar was paid up to €8 an hour as a cleaner while her husband, Cristinel Muntean, pocketed about €30 a day washing cars. They say there is nothing for them in Petrosani.
“I really don’t know what we’ll do now. If I had a job or a place to live I would stay here,” says Mr Muntean, folding his scarred and tattooed arms. “Given the chance, I’d go back to France.”
So far, however, only one Roma from Petrosani has gone back, locals say, with others too traumatised to repeat the trip.
Mircea Dragoi, 36, says he had been afraid of the French police but has given up finding work in Romania. “It’s too much. I just don’t know what to do anymore,” he says.
France, as well as some non-governmental organisations, views Roma migration as a national problem that countries such as Romania should tackle by better integration as citizens – for example, by improving access to health, education, employment and housing.
“They go [to France] for a better life. The job situation here is a real problem,” acknowledges Tiberiu Iacob-Ridzi, mayor of Petrosani. Romania’s government, while pushing for EU-wide Roma policies, has taken some important steps over the past decade, including affirmative action for Roma in higher education and a drive to end school segregation.
Yet since Romania joined the EU, progress on Roma integration has slowed. For example, scores of health mediators who were part of a widely praised scheme to boost Roma access to the medical system have been laid off as local authorities cut costs in a government drive towards decentralisation.
“We don’t want to take the responsibility away from the Romanian government. [But on Roma monitoring] the EU also has to be more active,” David Mark, executive director of the Roma Civic Alliance of Romania, says.
In Petrosani, the mayor promises to find homes for Roma returning from France and boasts of having renovated housing and repaired roads in Colonie.
Cristinela Ionescu, head of Thumende, a local NGO, produces a weekly hour-long television show in Petrosani on gypsy issues and culture in order to foster better understanding and acceptance of the community. She also organises professional training for local Roma but acknowledges that these barely scratch the surface of a much bigger problem.
“This is a culture of poverty,” she says. “Improving Roma education is the most important thing. It’s the key to everything.”
To the chagrin of French politicians, Romania has failed to spend hundreds of millions of euros of EU funding earmarked for Roma and other vulnerable groups, which might have been put to good use in poor communities. The complexity of the application process, worries about co-financing and bureaucratic delays prevent projects getting off the ground. The issue is set to be addressed by a conference in Bucharest next month.
But one reason for the foot-dragging is that Roma projects are not a priority for ordinary Romanians. Even liberal-minded citizens bemoan their failure to integrate and the embarrassment caused by criminality at home and abroad. Surveys show that many Romanians would not want a Roma neighbour or their child to sit in the same class as Roma children. A crowd in Bucharest booed Madonna, the pop singer, last year when she urged greater toleration of the Roma.
Highly educated, successful Roma commonly opt not to reveal their ethnic background in Romania for fear of harming their careers.
“We don’t have so many positive role models,” says Marian Mandache of Romani Criss, an NGO. “It makes it more difficult to change perceptions.”
Connect-R, a Romanian rap star, broke a taboo at an awards ceremony in July when he opened his jacket to reveal a T-shirt bearing the slogan “SUNT TIGAN” (“I am a Roma”).
Until Romania ends the demotivating cycle of poverty and discrimination, actions like this could remain a rarity and many Roma are likely to look for better lives elsewhere.