As up to 100,00 people demonstrated across France on Saturday to protest against the deportation of 1,000 Roma (gypsies) in August, activists from Hackney Refugee and Migrant Support Group joined Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) organisations and other anti-racist campaigners outside the French Embassy in Knightsbridge, central London.
“We have to make a stand,” Hackney campaigner Rayal told East London Lines. “France is currently carrying out the most public persecution of Roma people in the European Union and it is outrageous that the EU has not come out against it.”
In August, the French government announced the eviction of 300 illegal Roma camps as part of a “national security crackdown”. The government of Nicolas Sarkozy has also blamed Roma people for crimes such as drug-running and prostitution and “using children for begging”.
1,000 Roma men, women and children were deported to Romania and Bulgaria in raids described by one member of Sarkozy’s own centre-right UMP party as resembling ‘rafles’ – Nazi raids on Jews and Gypsies during the Second World War.
Those on the London demonstration said these latest attacks on Roma reflect a wider trend of racism and persecution that is sweeping Europe. Bulldozers were sent in to raze Roma camps in Italy at the end of August; in Hungary right-wing parties are calling for Roma communities to be detained indefinitely in specially-guarded camps.
Yvonne MacNamara, director of the Camden-based Irish Travellers Movement in Britain (ITMB), clad in a t-shirt reading ‘Roma rights are human rights,” explained: “We are here in solidarity with the Roma. Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities need to stand together fighting for their rights. Because although EU countries such as France, Italy and Hungary are signatories to anti-discrimination legislation, the way they are treating Roma communities is in complete violation of that commitment.”
Although Hackney council has been recognised for its work with local Roma and gypsy communities, whose presence in the borough dates back 500 years, the ITMB argues that such communities still face discrimination in Britain and points out that the single largest eviction of a gypsy community anywhere in Europe is currently taking place in Dale Farm in Essex.
President Sarkozy has the support of some 65% of the French population and says his government’s actions fully comply with EU law on human rights and migration. Last year France deported 11,000 Roma.
The League of Human Rights, which called for the demonstrations in France, said it wanted to counteract government xenophobia and what it described as the systematic abuse of Roma in France.
The country’s recent actions have been criticised by the United Nations and the Vatican and the European Union will meet next week to decide whether the deportations were carried out lawfully.
Cities such as Marseilles and Nantes saw similar marches, and there were solidarity rallies in neighbouring countries like Spain and Belgium, as well as more distant states with significant Roma minorities such as Hungary and Serbia.