Foreigners parade up and down the streets of Pigalle, the once-notorious sex district of Paris, ignoring the presence of the Roma women along the sidewalk, often in the company of children. A woman sitting on the curb stares blankly as her child approaches strangers with an empty cup. Like many young Roma calling France their new home, the girl helps her mother make a living off the kindness of strangers.
Ever since Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, France has seen an influx in Roma migrants. The Roma, also known as gypsies or tziganes, are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group living throughout Europe, North Africa, Asia, and the Americas. About 20,000 Roma now reside in France.
“[People] think we come to steal or kill and send our children to prostitute," Mirela Gheorghe, a Roma migrant, from Romania said. “We love our children like everybody, and we would give our life for our children.”
While some are sympathetic to these street children, others find fault in the Roma’s inability to understand one of the basic tenets of modern society—the importance of educating children.
“Before I had this job I was like everyone else, saying it’s so sad to see the children on the streets,” said Manon Fillonneau, a human rights monitor for the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC). “I did not know they couldn’t be enrolled in school.”
According to the French code of education, children between the ages of 6 and 16 must attend school whatever the legal status of their parents. However, as camps or makeshift homes are systematically demolished, the Roma find it increasingly difficult to enroll their children in school. A recent study by the European Roma Rights Centre found that more than half of Roma children from Romania do not attend school—which leaves them to spend their childhood on the streets.
“They don’t have babysitters in the settlements. They need to beg for survival and so they take their children with them,” said Fillonneau.
The Roma face other hurdles in enrolling their children in school. “One of the obstacles is that the mayors refuse to enroll children into school,” said Fillonneau. Nearly 60 percent of the cases surveyed by the ERRC were due to the refusal of officials to enroll Roma. Researchers concluded that Roma children are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior to support their families while outside the school system, which leads education officials to try and keep them out of the system--thus creating a vicious cycle.
To bar Roma children from classrooms, local authorities go to great lengths to delay their registration. “One technique would be to put them on a waiting list,” said Fillonneau. “It’s a way to gain time and wait for the eviction to happen.” Subsequently, Roma children may be put on a waiting list for up to one year. These delays make older children less inclined to go back at all.
Roma families are also turned away because of limited space in educational facilities, or they are told the necessary French language courses necessary to enroll are unavailable.
Due to discrimination in the housing and job market many Roma opt to settle in camps. But local authorities can impede a child’s access to education if the family resides in an unauthorized camp or a settlement.
“You can launch a complaint against the local chancellors if your child doesn’t go to school,” said Olivier Bethoux of the Federation of Associations for Aid to Education of Roma Children and Youth at Risk (FASET). “The municipal counselors know the law. If the Roma sign their children up for school, three days later the police move the settlement on.”
Researchers have found that the demolition of Roma camps has adverse effects on the psychological health of its former inhabitants. Four-fifths of respondents in a survey done by the ERRC had been evicted an average of six times and 69 percent reported having suffered psychological damage due to the forced evictions.
Roma families face an uphill battle in fighting for the education of their children. Every forced eviction destroys a little bit of normalcy and a sense of community.
Still, there are some who remain undaunted. Mirela Gheorghe enrolled her daughter in school with the help of a local association. “School is very important for the future. In every country you go, if you don’t have school you don’t have anything, “she said.