Roma expelled from France anxious about the future

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Back in his once flourishing but now economically depressed mining town, Gabriel, a 33-year-old Romanian Roma just expelled from France, is anxious about the future for his family.

"I am disgusted by all the problems here in Romania. Here, the industry is dead. I do not know to whom or what I can cling to. I do not know what to do to support my family," he told AFP, asking his last name not be used for the safety of his family.

Gabriel was on the first flight Thursday carrying dozens of Roma back to Romania after French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced a tough law and order crackdown that explicitly linked crime and immigration.

After a flight to Bucharest and a long train ride with his wife and children, including a baby born in France, he is now back in Petrosani, his native town in western Romania.

During communist times, Petrosani was a booming mining town. Around 45,000 people worked at extracting coal, said mayor Tiberiu Iacob Ridzi.

Today, only 8,000 work in the mine. The unemployment rate in the area reaches 11 percent, significatly higher than the 7.4 percent national average.

Gabriel left for France a year ago to escape joblessness and poverty.

"Romania is the country where we were born. I love it, but the living standards differ a lot. France gives you the possibility to live, Romania gives you the possibility to die," said Gabriel's father Vasile, a 51-year-old carpenter, who also travels to France from time to time to work.

In the eastern French city of Grenoble where he lived a year, Gabriel worked as a mechanic. Never officially however, as Romanian and Bulgarian citizens are still submitted to work restrictions in France.

His wife worked as a saleswoman until she became pregnant. The family settled in a hotel room.

"We were starting to grow roots in France", Gabriel says.

He would have liked to stay and is bitter about being forced to leave.

"I was pushed to go back to Romania" because of the political situation in France, he said.

Officially, Gabriel accepted a so-called "voluntary return" in exchange for a 300-euro grant.

"But we cannot say it is really a voluntary return. The (French) authorities are putting on pressure and some politicians play the card of racial hatred," he said, adding that French people, on the contrary, are "very helpful".

France is facing growing international criticism after it decided to toughen its stance against Roma living illegally in the country.

Earlier this month, a United Nations expert panel warned of mounting racism and xenophobia in France, slamming the link made by the authorities between immigrants and crime.

"Of course, some of our people behave badly but others are good people and now good people suffer," said Gabriel.

According to Romanian governmental sources, none of the people sent back on Thursday and Friday committed an offence.

In Petrosani, 35-year-old Cristinela Ionescu, a graduate in sociology and journalism, is trying to help Roma including the ones that just came back from France.

Her NGO Thumende offers professional training.

Together with the municipality, they will meet every family expelled from France to identify their needs.

The mayor says he will try to provide as much assistance as his limited budget allows him to do.

"You cannot give people 300 euros and tell them 'go back where you came from'. As a human being, I am from where I feel good to live," Ionescu said when asked about the French policy.

In Petrosani, most of the Roma go to school. Unlike in other parts of Romania, the drop out rate is low. Several programmes using European funds are also running to build houses for Roma.

The economic crisis, which is hitting hard what is already one of Europe's poorest countries, remains the main problem.

If he does not find a job fast, Gabriel said he will leave again to France or elsewhere in Europe.

© 2010 AFP

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