GENNEVILLIERS, France (AP) — The camps weren't much to begin with: They had no electricity or running water. Grocery carts served as makeshift grills. Rats ran rampant and fleas gnawed on young and old alike.
But they were home — and they were better than the new reality for thousands of Gypsies who have been forced into hiding after France launched its latest campaign this month to drive them from their camps.
The last big sweep came in 2010, when France expelled Gypsies to Romania and Bulgaria. Then the European Commission imposed sanctions and thousands of French came out to protest in sympathy for the Gypsies, also known as the Roma.
This time, the Gypsies left quietly, gathering their belongings and heading into the woods with plans to re-emerge when the coast is clear.
"Why did God even create us, if Gypsies are to live like this?" cried 35-year-old Babica, as bulldozers moved in to tear down the camp in Gennevilliers, on the outskirts of Paris. Like other Roma quoted in this story, he did not give his last name out of fear of arrest or deportation.
Most of the Gypsies have no plans to return to Romania, where their citizenship would at least allow them to educate their children and treat their illnesses. Amid a dismal economic environment across Europe, they say, begging in France is still more lucrative than trying to find work where there is none.
France has cast the most recent demolitions as necessary for public health and safety. It's hard to pinpoint how many camps were taken down. At least five around Paris were demolished and several hundred of their residents were ordered out; others came down in Lille and Lyon.
This time, France's Interior Ministry says, the camps were demolished in accordance with legal guidelines agreed upon with the European Union.
"Respect for human dignity is a constant imperative of all public action, but the difficulties and local health risks posed by the unsanitary camps needed to be addressed," the Interior Ministry said. In no case, the government said, "did the removals take the form of collective expulsion, which is forbidden by law."
Mina Andreeva, spokeswoman for the European Commission, said the executive body is studying the situation.
The Roma Forum, which has ties to the 47-member Council of Europe, condemned the evictions, saying they contradict "President (Francois) Hollande's commitment from his election campaign to not expel Roma families without proposing alternative accommodation." It's not clear whether France consulted any Roma before moving in on the camps.
Human Rights Watch said 240 Romanian Gypsies evicted from camps around Lyon in southern France left last week on a charter flight to Romania after accepting 300 euros for a "voluntary return."
The French government has offered no hard numbers on how many Roma camps have come down, or how many Roma have been evicted. The government does not refer to the ethnic group by name, citing only "illicit encampments." Each Gypsy camp houses a couple dozen to hundreds of people, depending on the ancestral network.
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