BUCHAREST (Reuters) – France and Romania signed a two-year deal on the voluntary repatriation of Roma people to Romania on Wednesday, part of efforts by Paris to send home hundreds of illegal immigrants living in squalid conditions near French cities.
Around 80 families will return to Romania under the pilot programme signed by French Interior Minister Manuel Valls and European Affairs Minister Bernard Cazeneuve during talks with Romanian officials in Bucharest.
Valls, a law and order Socialist who has continued the much criticised repatriation policies of the previous conservative French government, has defended police raids to break up Roma camps near Paris, Lyon and Lille on health grounds.
The Roma come mostly from Romania and Bulgaria, fellow European Union member states that human rights groups say discriminate against the minority.
An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Roma immigrants in France live mainly in squalid camps in city outskirts. The French authorities say they lack the necessary residency permits.
“We wish to send a message to the public that … our joint efforts should be focussed on a solution in which the Roma settle in their country of origin, Romania,” Valls said after meeting Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta.
The Romanian leader said his country accepted its responsibility to integrate the Roma community, adding that his government needed support from the European Union and France.
Roughly 200 Roma and supporters protested earlier outside the government and president’s offices, saying Romanian officials were only pretending to care about the problems facing their minority.
France’s actions have come under close scrutiny from U.N. human rights investigators, as well as the European Union, which two years ago criticised a crackdown on illegal Roma camps launched by Nicolas Sarkozy, who lost the presidency in May.
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Jon Boyle)