There are countless thousands of Gypsies and Refugees all over Europe.
The phenomenon is not new in itself and goes back hundreds of years, but a combination of factors, principally the reconfiguration of Europe since the creation of the European Union, the Romanian and other revolutions, the end of the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe and the recent and devastating Balkan conflict, has led to an enormous increase in the numbers of people affected.
France is host to many Romanian Gypsies, and they are known as Roms here. Roms are different from Romanians in general because they are itinerant in lifestyle and they have their own language and culture.
I went to see the situation for myself near Lyon, which has Rom slum camps dotted in and around it just like any other major European city. There was no shortage of choice and I chose to visit a camp situated next to an industrial zone on the outskirts of Lyon and not far from Lyon’s principal airport.
Before going however, and in order to get more background information, I met with André Gachet, the European Administrative Delegate for European Affairs for the Lyon-based association which works to help those with housing and related problems, ALPIL. They also do a lot of work for Roms. The association’s English name is the European Federation for Social Assistance and Integration through Housing Provision.
He explained, methodically and chronologically, the recent history of Roms in Lyon.
“We were first alerted to this back in ’93, when were were informed that a group of adults and children had taken up residence in some disaffected industrial premises a few miles from the city centre. Those people were from Romania and were looking for asylum because of the situation there. Their numbers increased dramatically with the onset of the Balkan conflict. The sheer weight of numbers finally meant that concrete action had to be taken to deal with the situation and so they were allotted some old factory premises to live in.”
André went on to explain that the first slum camps began to spring up as the Balkan war progressed in 2001. Many inhabitants were Roms and Balkan refugees. They lived in poor conditions in their respective countries and the camps were the continuation of that survival culture.
“This led to a hostile reaction from some sections of public opinion and also, more seriously, from the authorities.” He continued. “The question was on the table but everyone just kept passing the buck, saying ‘this isn’t my area.’ The situation festered until the recent admittance of Romania and certain Balkan countries to the European Union. This meant that they no longer had any choice but to make an effort. Solutions slowly began to be found to house families and integrate them into the world of legal work and schooling for their children.”
We discussed the difficulties of getting politicians and administrations to make concrete efforts to deal with the situation, and André explained how the ALPIL and other groups have changed their approach in order to get more done.
“It’s no longer about combating racism and looking for charity and pulling heartstrings. It’s about getting people to do their jobs correctly and creating proactive systems to deal with as many cases as we can. We work on a local, national and international basis, trying to create interlinked and interactive response capabilities.”
André Gachét is confident that things will improve, even if miracles won’t happen overnight. That’s because Europe will be obliged to integrate many of those concerned in 2012 because their countries will become fully integrated into Europe and they will thus become full European citizens, with the rights that go with that status.
His phone rings for the fourth time, a fourth person comes in to notify him of something, and so this very busy man has to go.
And I head out to see things for myself.
There are about six to eight hundred Roms in some forty slum camps in the Lyon area, the largest of which contains just under one hundred people. I went to a camp with about seventy inhabitants.
It is situated in a field towards the end of a road which leads to a large International Exhibition Centre and it contains both Roms and some Yugoslavian refugees. It consists mainly of very old caravans and tents and doesn’t look too inviting as I approach.
As I approach there are just three teenagers to be seen chatting next to a caravan. But as soon as I get to within fifty metres, four or five men come out of caravans as if in obeyance to a magic sign and they begin to scrutinise me. I approach one of them and introduce myself and explain why I am there. He doesn't look too convinced. I ask if he speaks French. Or English. He hesitates, and one of three teenage boys says “I speak French.” “Oh, great!” I reply.
We begin to chat about the fact that it’s going to pour down with rain shortly and he says that that will be good for the plants. “The weeds, you mean” I say and we laugh. The men, seemingly reassured by our laughter, begin to move back into their caravans, looking over their shoulders just to make sure everything is OK. They don’t seem too willing to talk themselves, but are happy to let me talk with the kids.
One of them went back into this caravan.
I ask the teenagers for their names. One of them didn’t want to give his name, and the others were called Ricky and Ilie.
“So, why are you here? Where are you from? Tell me about yourselves.”
They speak eagerly, but with limited French, and I learn that two of them are Roms, one of them from Arat and the other from Keyova, both in Romania. The other, nameless, boy says he is from Yugoslavia. I ask them to spell their town names but they can’t spell so I write the names down and show them the piece of paper. They both say that the names are correct.
“We came to France three years ago to look for food and work” says Ricky. “There is nothing in Romania and the people don’t like us there. We were very poor. The French are OK but some of them are racist and think we all steal. I like the girls though. French girls are very beautiful.” I suggest that girls are beautiful all over the world. “No” he shoots back “In Romania the girls have a mustach.” They all burst into fits of giggling.
Where do you live? I ask Ilie. “There” he replies and points to his home. This is it.
They go on to tell me that the police don’t come to see them often, only when there has been trouble on the camp itself. They do come round just to say hello sometimes, but not often.
These teenagers have been here for four years and the camp has been here on-and-off for eight. They are convinced that their future lies in France and tell me they wouln’t go back to Romania for anything in the world.
I stop to take a photo of this caravan.
That was a mistake. The four men who were eating outside just to the right of the caravan got up angrily, shouting “Hey! No photos! No photos!” I ask if they speak French. “No French.” So I use sign language to say that they were out of the shot. One of them approaches and points to the camera, to his eyes, then to himself. I show him the photo and he seems satisfied.
I ask the boys if I can have a photo of them. “No photos.” “Fine, no problem” I say. We chat for a couple more minutes and I say I have to go. As I leave, one of them asks me for money. “No, no money” I reply laughingly, imitating their refusal to let me have a photograph. and walk away. Then Ilie has a bright idea. “Hey, you want a photo of my son?” It’s not his son, but I am glad to get a photo of someone. That’s the photo at the top of this page. Then Ilie says “One euro?” with a smile. He gets two for his ingeniosity.
A man is lying down by his caravan nearby and actually asks me to take a photo of him.
I say goodbye to Ilie and take a picture of the Yugoslav camp twenty yards away. I had been told that there is friction between the two camps. Ilie suddenly offers to take me over there and I accept. But the man whose photo I had just taken began bawling Ilie out in what I suppose was Rom or Romanian. When he had finished I asked what it was about .
“I can’t go over there” he says sadly. I am not allowed to.”
When I get home I Wiki and Google and try to find out more about Arat and Keyova, the towns that Ricky and Ilie said they came from.
They don’t exist.