Leonarda’s missed chance to integrate

The expelling of a Roma girl and her family from France highlights problems of poverty and discrimination in the EU.

"State measures against Roma immigrants and refugees and manipulative state discourses about them further damaging stereotypes and thus contribute to their exclusion from French society," writes Mariann Dosa [AFP]

On 9 October 2013, Leonarda Dibrani, a 15-year-old girl of Roma origin was seized by the police on a school bus during a class outing in France. Leonarda, her parents, and five siblings were detained and deported from the country as illegal immigrants. The case sparked significant public resentment that culminated in thousands of French students blockading entrances to their schools and marching in the streets to protest the expulsions of immigrant families.

Due to the upheaval, an investigation was issued and in a few days an official report was published, which found that the operation was lawful, but the police lacked judgment in the way they handled the situation. 

Leonarda’s father is from Kosovo, while his children were born in Italy, but they do not have Italian citizenship for unknown reasons. With all its members but the father born outside Kosovo, the family is currently struggling with social isolation in Kosovo, which is exacerbated by the fact that the children do not speak the local language. 

The French president had the final say in the case offering Leonarda to go back to France and continue her education but without her parents and siblings. The girl rejected the offer on the grounds that she does not want to abandon her family, wanting the same educational opportunities for her siblings that have been extended to her.

Given that tens of thousands of Roma people have been expelled from France in the past years, this story probably would not have hit the news had the police had “better judgment in the way they handled the situation” – in the process preventing massive street protests. However, the incident itself and public reactions to it highlight crucial social and political issues.

“Unfit” for integration

Although the media focused on the fact that the primary victim of the incident is a minor and on the way the police operation was carried out, it is important to remember that forced evictions of Roma immigrants, the dismantling of their settlements and their deportation still occur on a mass scale in France and other EU countries. After the heated debate within the EU on mass settlement clearance and expulsions by the Sarkozy government that (according to a leaked ministerial document) prioritised the Roma, the issue was diplomatically settled and since then expulsions have become a routine practice for the police in some EU countries.

Despite the subsequent silence on the part of EU institutions, we should not forget that such practices violate a number of moral values and fundamental rights upon which the European Union was founded, such as the right to human dignity, the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of racial/ethnic origin, the rights of the child, the right to family life, and the freedom of movement, to name but a few. In fact, many of these values are rooted in the historical struggles of the French people.

The incident highlights the systemic discrimination and institutional violence that Roma people face daily all over Europe. The Dibranis’ application for asylum was turned down on the grounds that “they had insufficient prospect of social and economic integration.” Such reasoning is especially dubious in the light of the fact that Leonarda had been attending school for years before her expulsion where she had learned flawless French and established an important social network. Having access to education is indeed an important factor that helps diverse communities integrate. However, the six Dibrani children (among many others) are now deprived of this opportunity and instead, the family is treated as a gang of untrustworthy criminals and blamed for lacking the prospect of integration into French society.

Furthermore, by systematically discriminating Roma immigrants, the French state in fact plays an active role in impeding their social integration. As a result, Roma immigrants are forced to live in unhealthy, often disgraceful circumstances and abject poverty. This, in turn, reinforces the stigma that the Roma are essentially different, uncivilised, backward people and thus further inhibits their integration.

State measures against Roma immigrants and refugees and manipulative state discourses about them further damaging stereotypes and thus contribute to their exclusion from French society. In the statements of the government as well as authorities, Roma settlements are depicted as hotbeds of crime (prostitution, human trafficking, drug dealing etc.) and Roma people – as generally incapable of integrating into French society and extracting social benefits without contributing to society. 

In the current case Hollande stated that Leonarda may return to France to continue attending school at the expense of the French taxpayers. Such a statement clearly serves to highlight that these people actually cost money to French people. Such state discourses turn Roma immigrants into scapegoats, as they are depicted as the main reason for some of the most pressing social problems in France: unemployment, criminality, lack of social security, and the widening gaps in the welfare net. In this way, state representatives further deepen the fault-lines between different social groups (Roma and non-Roma, documented and undocumented immigrants, citizens and immigrants/refugees, working and unemployed poor people etc.) and hence fragment the possible civic opposition. At the same time, they turn the public attention away from their own responsibility for these social problems. This practice has proven fairly effective according to recent polls showing that 77 percent of the French support deportation policies.  

Escaping marginalisation

And last but not least, we must not forget what Roma immigrants and refugees strive to escape from. In Central and Eastern Europe, Roma people experience chronic poverty, forced evictions, discrimination in many spheres of their lives (education, health care, employment etc.), and spatial segregation (in the worst cases fortified by physical walls). Roma children attend segregated school classes or fully segregated schools; they are over-represented in foster homes as well as in special needs schools. Furthermore, these people face ever increasing racial hatred and violence that, in extreme cases, induce racially motivated murders as it happened in Hungary in 2008-2009. 

However, as the current incident suggests, Western European countries do not guarantee the welfare of Roma people either. The fact that Leonarda’s father provided false information to the authorities about the family’s geographical origin (maintaining that members of the family were born in Kosovo so he could request asylum for them) can be easily portrayed as yet another example of Roma people being dishonest and unprincipled. However, another reading of it can be that even a long-term member of the EU such as Italy has failed to ensure that Italian-born Roma inhabitants can have a decent life and hence, they had to move to another country hoping for a better quality of life – only to be disappointed yet again. 

Therefore, the issue of Leonarda’s deportation is not a question of whether police operations against immigrants can take place on any school premises or not. This is only a detail, however important one. President Hollande was absolutely right in stating that, “The values of the republic also involve accounting for human situations.” Such accounting requires inclusionary social and economic policies and respect for the dignity of all. Or as a student at the recent protests pointed out, “a leftist government should act like a leftist government.” 

Mariann Dosa is a Hungarian academic and activist. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Social Policy at Oxford University.