After Cristian was evicted from his shack in La Samaritan, a Parisian slum, he slept in front of the local town hall for two months – partly in protest and partly because he had nowhere else to go.
‘It was cold,’ he says. ‘And there were lots of children with us.’
Cristian and his family are ethnic Roma from Romania. They are among an estimated 20,000 Roma migrants in France who have fled poverty and discrimination in Eastern Europe.
But in France they find little solace. The Council of Europe recently reported that ‘deep-seated hostility to Roma has pervaded society.’ Parisian authorities regularly evict illegal settlements such as the Samaritan without providing long-term alternatives, leaving former residents sleeping on the streets.
To be homeless in France is to be locked out of the system: without an address, it is even harder to find work, or get schooling or healthcare.
Roma rights organization La Voix des Rroms (Roma Voice) has an immediate, practical solution: helping families to squat empty homes. ‘A house gives the conditions for quite a normal life,’ says Pierre Chopinaud, the organization’s director. ‘People can start looking for a job. They have somewhere to wash and somewhere to sleep.’
Since La Voix des Rroms helped Cristian move into a squat in a northern suburb of Paris last year, his family’s quality of life has drastically improved. His children are in education and he can see a future.
Although his situation is not legal, he is much happier. ‘This is the only option,’ he says. ‘The government gives you nothing. You have to do it by yourself.’
‘Without racism,’ points out Radost Zaharieva from the European Roma Rights Centre, ‘Roma migrants would have the chance to fulfil themselves personally and professionally in French society – just like any other citizen.’