Unwanted in France, Unloved in Romania A Desperate Homecoming for Deported Roma
France is deporting hundreds of Roma to Romania and other Eastern European countries. But the controversial policy isn't working. Unable to find work in their home countries, many plan to return to France as quickly as possible.
Merisor de la Barbulesti is home again, and he's in a foul mood. He is 42, has 15 grandchildren and his only source of income is his battered accordion.
The children romp around him when he gets his instrument from the living room in the evening. He sits down in the courtyard in front of his bright-red house and plays a passage from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." Merisor can't read music. He simply plays by ear, a skill that his father taught him.
The accordion player is a member of the Ursari caste of the Roma people. His ancestors went from village to village with their dancing bears. His German accordion, Hohner's "Verdi" model, was made before the war. It has been played so much that some of the keys are worn down to the bare wood.
For six weeks, Merisor tried to earn a living in France, but then French President Nicolas Sarkozy suddenly decided to rid himself of the Roma.
About 15,000 Roma live in France, most of them from Eastern Europe. Hundreds of them are often seen camped out on the outskirts of villages and cities, and most of them manage to scrape by as harvest hands.
After clashes between Roma and police in Grenoble and Saint-Aignan, Sarkozy decided that it was time to deport them. The decision, though widely criticized, even by the pope, is not one he is likely to regret. Opinion polls show that a large majority of the French population favors sending the "traveling people" back home.
The authorities also showed Merisor the door, even though, as a Romanian, he is a citizen of the European Union and cannot simply be deported like an asylum seeker whose application has been rejected.
The police sent 60 officers to the camp in Grenoble and initially told the Roma that they had to move. The city had set up a site on the outskirts, between the highway and the railroad tracks, says Merisor. But the police showed up in the new camp only a few days later. "I have orders," one officer said. "It's better if you go, or else you'll be thrown in jail," he reportedly threatened.
Merisor, like the others, heeded the officer's recommendation and packed up his accordion. Those who had been in France for more than two months received 300 ($380), which is about the average net monthly income in Romania.
Struggling to Get By
Merisor has been home in Barbulesti, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) northeast of Bucharest, for a week now. Hordes of black-haired children play with dogs on the potholed, unpaved village streets. There is no sewage system and garbage is strewn all over.
Merisor's grandfather built the house, a long, single-story building. His mother still lives there, as does Merisor with his wife Nuta, two sons, their wives and Merisor's grandchildren. The house has electricity and a satellite dish, but the women have to walk two kilometers to fetch water.
From the courtyard gate, the crumbling towers of an old sugar factory are visible on the horizon. Many Roma used to work there. But since the factory was shut down in 1990, practically everyone in Barbulesti has been unemployed.
Merisor is waiting for the next opportunity to play his accordion, perhaps at a wedding. He is well known in the surrounding villages, and people like to hire him to play Gypsy tunes. He earns 800 leu, or about 190, per event. "No one gives decent parties anymore since our country has been in crisis," he says. "We often don't have enough to eat."
Never Truly Accepted
Since the Romanian economic boom came to an abrupt end and turned into a financial crisis two years ago, unemployment has climbed to more than 7 percent in the country. There are hardly any new jobs, and Romanian employers generally prefer to hire pretty much anyone else other than Roma. Entire clans live off government subsidies for children and the meager pensions of the old people. They survive by working temporary jobs, trading scrap metal or begging. Many move to the West, to France, for example, to earn money.
Some 8-10 million Roma and Sinti live in the European Union. Their ancestors left India 1,000 years ago, but they were never truly accepted in Europe. For centuries, they took on the work that the local population was unwilling to do. They were not allowed to buy land and they were practically without rights. The Nazis murdered half a million Roma and Sinti.
The overwhelming majority lives in Eastern Europe today, often in shantytowns and garbage dumps. Very few attend school for more than a few years. They are widely viewed as thieves and beggars, and often they are, living from the money their children earn begging on the streets of Western Europe. The few that have managed to accumulate wealth build gaudy houses, usually next to the slums where the other Roma live.
Most Slovaks, Romanians, Poles, Czechs and Bulgarians despise them. In Hungary, right-wing extremists have murdered nine Roma in the last three years.
- Part 1: A Desperate Homecoming for Deported Roma
- Part 2: 'We Are at Home Here, But We Can Barely Survive'