Bearing witness: how ‘evacuations’ provide the pretext for forced evictions of Roma in France
By Radost Zaharieva
Forced evictions is the main issue affecting foreign Roma living in slums in France. According to the recent report by the ERRC and the Ligue de droits de l’Homme,10,119 Romani people were forcefully evicted from their livings areas in 2016, and another 345 were forced to leave seven settlements due to fires caused mainly by bad living conditions in the slums or squats. The term used by the French authorities about Roma evictions is an “evacuation”. The ERRC attended one of these “evacuations” and observed how Roma are treated during the process.
A Roma woman talks to the deputy prefect Yann Drouet
Photo credit: ERRC
According to the Oxford English dictionary, evacuating is an action of removing (someone) from a place of danger to a safer place. If Roma families are “evacuated” from a slum or a squat designated as dangerous, what ‘safer place’ solutions await them? According to the above mentioned census shelter was provided in only 40 occasions of the total 83 evictions to some of the families considered as vulnerable. In most of the cases only a temporary shelter was offered. The others go back to slums or to the street.
Around noon on 22 February, when I went on a field mission to a Roma slum located in the 18th district of Paris, I was surprised to see Romani people leaving the settlement in droves under the direction of police officers. Activists present explained me that between 165 and 200 people who were present in the settlement were being evacuated due to a fire, which had broken out just one hour earlier. This evacuation effectively became a forced eviction.
This is the second time for these families to be evicted from the same place. The first eviction was carried out just one year ago when the authorities evicted Roma despite the fact that the French court granted the families with a six-month extension to remain in the settlement.
This second eviction took place when a fire suddenly broke out in the settlement, just 90 minutes after a bailiff informed the inhabitants that based on the court order they may be evicted at any moment from midnight on 23 February. At eleven a.m. a fire started in the part of the slum located near Boulevard Ney burning six of the total of 90 shacks located in the settlement. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined but one thing is certain: this fire prompted the immediate eviction of all these Romani families: as many as 200 people, including young children and babies were ordered to leave the slum immediately because of the possible danger caused by the fire.
A policeman ordered them to remain on the pavement near the settlement. The majority of the Romani families had no time to gather warm clothes for the children, and were unable to take food, medicines or money with them because of the abrupt manner of the “evacuation”. They were left standing for hours on the street, and only after almost three hours children were given some fruit juice by the authorities. Adults were not provided with water, despite the fact that they could not buy bottled water because they left their money in the settlement in the rushed evacuation.
After three hours left standing in the street, the families were approached by police officer in command who told them they could return to the settlement but only to gather their personal belongings. Roma families were refused permission to remain in the settlement because the Prefecture decided to evict them before the deadline given by the court, and despite the lack of a prefect’s notice for safety risk or health hazards. Thus, the eviction in Paris became unlawful. Once again the authorities evicted Roma without respecting the legal procedures.
Some Roma people tried to negotiate with Deputy Police Prefect M. Yann Drouet to make the authorities respect the deadline given by the court. The negotiations were fruitless and the Prefecture’s decision to evict them was final. Police officers then escorted the Roma back into the settlement to retrieve their personal belongings. Other officers blocked the entrances to the settlement to prevent families returning to their homes.
The families were allowed back into the settlement through one entry point manned by policemen, security guards and a dog. Only one member of each family was permitted to enter to retrieve their personal belongings. As a consequence families could only get their essentials: clothes, documents, medicines. People had to struggle to carry heavy loads for hundreds of meters as all the other entrances were blocked by police officers.
Throughout the whole process, the police priority was to prevent any families returning to the settlement, despite the fact that most of the shacks were undamaged by the fire. Police officers refused all requests by people needing to get their medication to be allowed to go back into the settlement first. One mother whose child has asthma begged the policemen blocking the entry in vain to allow her to go back in to get her child’s inhaler. The fact that an asthmatic child might have aggravated breathing problems due to smoke and fire cut little ice with police officers whose priority was to force the Roma to stand in two lines at an impromptu checkpoint to control access to the settlement and ensure that no one would remain inside.
In consequence Romani people, including children lost their homes and many of their personal belongings because of this eviction in the immediate aftermath of the fire. Between 50 and 70 people from the nearly two hundred Roma present in the settlement that day were offered shelter in St-Denis which is six kilometres away, and Chelles which is 20 kilometres from the settlement. The public authorities provided transport from the Roma settlement to the hotels where the families would be accommodated. When I asked for how long these evictees would be provided with shelter, none of the representatives could provide me with an answer.
These families are the lucky ones because they were provided with shelter. The less fortunate others went back to the street where activists tried to find accommodation for them. If these families do not receive any support for access to housing they will end up in another slum facing yet another eviction as has so often been the case.
How can this action be called an “evacuation” which is an emergency measure to save lives and provide safer living conditions, when so many of the inhabitants of the Roma settlement were cast out onto the streets with no alternative but to find another slum settlement and live in squalid conditions?
The behaviour of the French authorities, the lack of information about the process of what they call an “evacuation”; the lack of willingness to cooperate with NGOs and Roma activists present the day of the eviction in Paris revealed the true intent of the authorities. Clearly their aim was not to “evacuate” Roma families to a safer place. The aim was to use the pretext of the fire to effect a swift and final dismantling of the slum to make it disappear from this famous French city. This sequence of events was very similar to what happened two months ago in Pierrefitte where a fire broke out the-day eviction of 700 Roma. In June 2016 a fire occurred in a Roma slum in Loos immediately prior to the eviction of Roma families.
Whatever the causes of the fires, one thing is certain: each one prompted an immediate ‘evacuation’, which in reality is a forced eviction followed by a demolition, leaving more and more families on the street with little option but to move on in search of another slum to face further forced evictions.