A row has erupted over France’s treatment of thousands of Roma migrants after a 15-year-old girl was detained by police during a school trip and deported to Kosovo.
Leonarda Dibrani was finishing up a school field trip when French police showed up at the bus, detaining her before she was expelled by the authorities to Kosovo because her family’s asylum application had been repeatedly rejected.
The incident, which happened earlier this month but made public on Wednesday by an NGO that campaigns against the expulsion of school-age children, has sparked outrage from immigrant groups who say police went too far in publicly shaming the teenager.
The circumstances surrounding the arrest remained unclear, but both the interior ministry’s version and the account of a teacher agree that her arrest did not take place in view of other pupils.
However, the teacher who gave her account via the Network for Education without Borders (RESF) claimed that the other children were fully aware of what was happening and were deeply distressed by the incident.
“All my friends and my teacher were crying, some of them asked me if I had killed someone or stolen something as the police were looking for me. When the police reached the bus they told me to get out and that I had to go back to Kosovo,” said Dibrani.
Dibrani’s father, Reshat, who was expelled to Kosovo a day before his daughter was arrested said that the family had been victimised because of their ethnicity.
“There are bad refugees in France who get papers easily – we didn’t do anything bad. They did it to us because we are Roma. We would be treated differently if our skin was a different colour,” he said.
Now, Dibrani says she just wants to go back to France.
“I’m frightened, I don’t speak Albanian. My life is in France. I don’t want to go to school here because I don’t speak any of the local languages. I had freedom there. I do not want to stay here,” Dibrani told AFP news agency in the Kosovo town of Mitrovica, where the family has been given temporary housing by local authorities.
“If there is a God we will be aboard the first plane back to France.”
The ministry said the family repeatedly refused to leave and says that they met the girl’s school bus when it returned from the field trip.
Confronted with an angry backlash from the left of his party, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault promised the family would be brought back to France if the girl’s rights were found to have been infringed.
“The Interior Minister today launched an administrative investigation into the conditions of this expulsion to verify if all the rules were respected,” he said.
Opposition lawmakers backed Valls and warned him that a decision to reverse the deportation would send out a message that illegal immigrants were welcome in France.
“The law has to be applied and in this case an expulsion order had twice been upheld by the judicial system,” said Christian Jacob, leader of the UMP, a center-right parliamentary group.
There is the law but there are also values on which the left must never compromise
Claude Bartolone, the speaker of the National Assembly, underlined the extent of the concerns in the Socialist camp over the case.
“There is the law but there are also values on which the left must never compromise,” he said in a tweet.
“School has to be a sanctuary, we have to retain our principles based on rights and humanity,” said Education Minister Vincent Peillon.
The controversy follows an outcry last month over remarks by Valls in which he said most of the 20,000 Roma in France had no intention of integrating and should be sent back to their countries of origin.
Polls have suggested as many as three in four French voters support that stance and Valls, who is one of France’s most popular politicians, has enjoyed a surge in his standing as a result of comments regarded as racist by his critics.
President Francois Hollande has not made any public statement on the row, prompting opposition accusations the government was in chaos.