France extends 'catastrophic' Roma crackdown
French police on Tuesday dismantled the biggest Roma encampment in the Lyon area, extending a nationwide crackdown in what the local mayor described as a human catastrophe.
Authorities said 121 Roma, 47 of them children, had been moved out of the camp on the outskirts of Lyon on the basis of a court order that they vacate the land, which belongs to a property developer.
Charity workers said the camp had, until this weekend, been home to around 180 people including several newly born babies.
The latest camp clearance followed Monday's expulsion of 70 people, including 19 children, from a Roma camp in a surburb of Paris.
In both cases, police have moved into the camps without any arrangements being made for the occupants to be rehoused elsewhere, contrary to demands made by several government ministers and a promise President Francois Hollande made to Roma groups during his election campaign.
Martine David, the local mayor, admitted the expelled Roma were likely to set up a new camp in the area.
"We are going round in circles," she said. "We can't offer them a permanent housing solution and I know there's a risk they will just set up another camp.
"On a human level, it is completely catastrophic but we just don't have the means to deal with this kind of situation."
An estimated 15,000 ethnic Roma currently live in illegal camps across France and their presence, invariably the subject of hostility from local residents, has become a major political headache for the ruling Socialists.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls has continued the previous administration's approach of periodically dismantling camps and offering free flights and financial incentives for Roma to return to their countries of origin.
But the policy, decried as reminiscent of Nazi-era persecution when it was launched by former president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010, has had little impact on overall numbers and Valls has come under fire from some of his own colleagues, human rights groups and the European Commission.
The government moved last week to appease critics by announcing that it would ease restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian migrants' access to the jobs market.
It also said clearances would only be carried out on the basis of court orders and ideally with a plan for alternative accommodation having been established first.
Valls however has made it clear he regards this condition as unrealistic and has argued that the primary responsibility for the well-being of the Roma lies with their countries of origin, where they face systematic discrimination.
© 2012 AFP