Denied the Right to Water: the Miserable Fate of Roma in France

22 March 2016

By Marek Szilvasi and Radost Zaharieva

Today, March 22 is World Water Day; and today and everyday for thousands of Roma living in France, the reality is that you’ve got some ground to cover to fetch your water and if you need to use a toilet it is always going to be a walk away. The distance to fire hydrants and public fountains is often a few hundred metres, and getting to the source of water often involves crossing highway exits, climbing over fences and locked gates, trespassing and traipsing across private property and public parks. To get water often involves being chased by dogs, arguing with fire fighters, car wash attendants, security guards or any random citizen who feels duty-bound to prevent you from using water from hydrants, taps, or fountains. The trip back, laden down with water is considerably more hazardous.

Even where Roma can use water from nearby hydrants without hindrance, that one source is shared with tens of other people at best. There is nowhere to heat the water and it can only be stored in canisters and pots. Cramped shacks and squats offer no privacy to attend to basic daily hygiene.

The lack of water and basic sanitation brings means that people are plagued with digestive problems, diarrhoea, colic and hepatitis; skin diseases such as acne, eczema, scabies, lice, and impetigo are legion. The lack of sanitary facilities and the necessary recourse to defecating in self-made pit latrines in the vicinity of the shacks and caravans adds to the perilous health conditions and squalor.

Last week I went to France, where I was joined by Radost, to follow up on the ERRC research into access to water and sanitation in informal Roma camps (‘bidonville’) and halting sites for Travellers (‘Gens du voyage’) begun in 2014. Although the ‘Gens du Voyage’ tend to dissociate themselves from issues related to Eastern European Roma, the discrimination they face from the French institutions and general public majority also manifests itself in denial of access to water and adequate sanitation.

According to the recent Report of the Inter-ministerial Delegation for Housing and Access to Accommodation (DIHAL in French), 17,929 people live in 582 informal settlements situated in 39 departments across the country; 41 per cent of the informal camps are occupied by Romanian Roma, and the bulk of the informal settlements are concentrated on the outskirts of large cities such as Paris, Lille, Marseille, Nantes, Toulouse, Grenoble. The majority of Roma living in informal camps have been in France for about five years.  And the majority are routinely denied access to clean water and sanitation. Such access is not a luxury to be reserved for the deserving but an essential human right indispensible for a life with dignity.

[Roma sites with no or limited access to water and sanitation in Paris]

Perpetual Evictions       

Despite the hostility and hardships very few of the migrant Roma opt to return to Romania and have come to endure a life of frequent evictions. So frequent are the evictions that they have become somehow routinized in some places with both police and Roma acting in a mechanical manner and according to an institutionally set pattern.

The formal sites set up by city authorities – villages d’insertion – were devised as temporary solutions, and seemed like progress when compared to the politics of forced evictions and wilful negligence. But these villages house no more than five or ten families at a time. Due to its inconsequential scale this policy has been dismissed as municipal window dressing, for beyond the confines of the villages, 90% of migrant Roma in France are condemned to live in informal housing without basic utilities like electricity and water and under the constant threat of eviction.

The applicability of basic human rights standards is stymied by the perpetual cycle of forcible evictions.  For by the time civil society groups confront the authorities responsible for providing basic services such as access to clean drinking water, the settlement in question has been demolished, the inhabitants evicted and moved on. Such is the case in a small town south of Lille, under the control of the Front National, where any request for a clean drinking water supply for Roma is likely to prompt an order to evict. For many French public authorities, forced evictions are the means to effectively trump rights-based claims to water. This week marks the end of the winter moratorium on evictions and the beginning of a new eviction cycle urged on by public authorities and judges. Activists and volunteers are convinced that the map of informal settlements will be radically altered in the coming months.


According to local NGO estimates, about 1440 Roma live in the Lille metropolitan area in 30 or so informal settlements, and 300-350 Roma live in tolerated or public authority sites. Five villages d’insertion comprised of prefab mobile family units accommodate 130 Roma. Two ‘approved’ camps, Loos and La Cruppe are home to around 160 Roma.  In providing land for  tolerated camps, and approving villages d’insertion between 2010 and 2012 the Lille authorities acted against the preferences of the government of Nicolas Sarkozi. However since the change of municipal leadership in 2012 the only tangible action according to local activists has been the issuing of eviction orders. Many of the informal camps are located at the edge of two municipalities, stuck in a kind of administrative limbo. This has led to official negligence as neither authority has assumed responsibility, but has so far meant that no evictions have taken place.

[Roma sites with no or limited access to water and sanitation in Lille]

Some informal camps in Lille are built around detached fire hydrants in the industrial zones of the city. These hydrants were mechanically opened and water usually runs uninterrupted for the whole day. One hydrant serves as the water supply for some 100-150 Roma. Neither the police nor firemen nor other municipality official would take any action to deny this water supply to Roma. There is only one camp with chemical toilets installed at the entry (La Cruppe). For the others, as Gratiela Butaru, health mediator with AREAS explained: "For toilets, they go around their homes, behind the caravans. On some sites, the Roma themselves have built squat toilet. But for most it’s the nature.”

[A Roma camp in Lille located among the highway exists with no access to water and no functional toilets]


Water and Marseille are bound together in the city’s ancient mythological origins. The city is home to many international water initiatives like World Water Council, Europ Water International, and Water Consulting International and it also hosted the World Water Forum in 2012. Today, Marseille is a divided city with a rich south and a poor north, with the majority of the Roma camps located in the northern part of the city.

[Roma sites with no or limited access to water and sanitation in Marseille]

Despite the continuous cycle of evictions and consequent circulation of Roma around the city, the activists, volunteers and formal civil society groups in Marseille have a surprisingly precise overview of the number of Roma, their camps and squats. Most of the current 26 camps and squats in Marseille are without access to water, the only connections that remain are those the water provider forgot to cut. For drinking water the most expensive option is the only one for the poorest people: the majority of the Roma have to purchase bottled water in the shops.

[A new Roma squat in Marseille - about 100 people sharing one abandoned water tap]

More Roma are choosing to squat in abandoned buildings in the industrial and former port zones. These large squats allow for less visibility, Roma can hide caravans inside the buildings, and there is less chance of evictions. There is also more chance of working hydrants or taps, which water providers neglected to disconnect when businesses abandoned the buildings. 

We visited two squats, one occupied by Roma specializing in scrap metal collection, the second one by Roma repairing and dealing in cars. The community of scrap metal collectors recently moved into an abandoned fire station on the northside. One running water tap serves between 20 and 30 families. About 20 families occupy the premises of a former Ford car-repair dealership. It is a large complex with high ceilings perfectly able to accommodate their caravans and cars. They use a fire hydrant inside the building for getting their water and also built pit latrines outside.

In Marseille the issue of access to water goes beyond Roma. In 2014, concerned about the lack of public fountains and showers, the local branches of MCM, Foundation Abbe Pierre and Fédération Nationale des Associations d’Accueil et de Réinsertion Sociale (FNARS) produced a Commitment Charter on public access to water in Marseille. Two points directly relate to Roma: authorising a temporary connection of irregular settlements to the public mains and ensuring that garbage is collected everywhere.  Despite initial positive reactions from the political parties before the communal elections there has been no action. And the authorities seem committed to continue with evictions. Two more took place this week.


The ERRC’s findings in France are part of a wider research on access to safe and affordable drinking water and sanitation in Romani neighbourhoods in seven countries. The research reveals that many Roma suffer disproportionately from the failures of public authorities to secure access to water and sanitation. The ERRC found evidence that many Romani households remain without water and sewerage due to discrimination. In France the authorities have created an extraordinary fuss about Roma, using inflammatory rhetoric, adopting punitive measures, and inflicting constant hardship upon them through forced evictions. The fuss is all the more extraordinary when one considers that in a country of 66.3 million inhabitants, the migrant Roma (mainly from Bulgaria and Romania) amount to no more than 20,000 overall; no more than 1,000-2,000 people in France’s large multicultural cities. Rather than invest in strategic Roma inclusion policies, France has opted for a policy of discrimination and exclusion. Denial of access to clean water and sanitation is intrinsic to this policy. As the UN has stated "The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights". On World Water Day, EU institutions need to be reminded that French authorities stand accused of willfully denying this basic right to thousands of Roma.


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