French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was in Bucharest on the weekend to discuss ways to prevent criminal networks -- many of which are believed to be led by members of the Roma minority -- from smuggling women and children from Romania into France, where they are being used mainly as prostitutes or beggars. Sarkozy and Romanian officials agreed to improve bilateral cooperation between law-enforcement agencies and to offer protection to Romanian minors in France. Bucharest also agreed to step up border controls and freeze the assets of Romanian citizens who commit crimes on French territory. But ethnic Roma groups in Romania are warning that such measures must not violate their human rights.
Prague, 3 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Meeting in Bucharest on 30-31 August, French and Romanian officials agreed to step up cooperation in the fight against illegal migration and people smuggling into France.
Paris recently uncovered a series of trafficking networks originating in Romania, some of which are organized by members of the country's ethnic Roma minority. These networks force young immigrants into prostitution and recruit children and handicapped people to beg on the streets of France.
Such cases have shocked and outraged the French public, prompting the Romanian media to raise alarms that Paris may try to reimpose a visa regime. In January, Romania was the last of the 12 European Union candidates to have its visa regime lifted for travel in most EU countries.
During his visit to Romania, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and his Romanian counterpart Ioan Rus signed several agreements, including a protocol on increased bilateral cooperation between the two countries' police forces and a memorandum on the situation of Romanian minors on French territory.
Romanian Interior Ministry spokesman Cornel Alexandru told RFE/RL that the memorandum is meant to help identify and protect the estimated 2,000 Romanian children currently on the streets of French towns. "The two sides have pledged to identify Romanian children on French territory who are isolated, that is, children who are not accompanied by parents or another legal [guardian], and who are exposed to the risk of being abused or exploited by adults or of committing criminal offenses. Also, the two sides convened on the measures to protect such children while they are in France and repatriate them. Romania also pledged to continue their protection after repatriation," Alexandru said.
Sarkozy also pledged French funding for Romanian nongovernmental organizations that are to take care of the children, and adults, who are being repatriated from France. An agreement detailing the conditions for their accommodation, treatment, and repatriation is to be signed during Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase's visit to France next month.
Law-enforcement agencies say prostitution and begging are lucrative crimes that reap millions of dollars every year. According to French media, one child beggar can earn as much as $800 per month.
To prevent criminals from amassing fortunes out of such businesses, Sarkozy obtained Bucharest's pledge that legislation will be adopted to confiscate property in Romania belonging to those who commit crimes in France.
Among the Romanian children who have been lured to France are many ethnic Roma, as well as children of poor farmers from northern Romania. French authorities have noticed a sharp increase in the number of Romanian prostitutes who are minors -- some as young as 12 -- on the streets of French towns.
French officials last month announced the expulsion of some 200 Romanian Roma belonging to a network that forced amputees and other handicapped people to beg in public places.
But many Roma-rights groups, which represent Romania's more than 500,000-strong minority, are protesting what they see as disproportionate media attention and the "criminalization" of their community.
Costel Bercus, head of Romani Criss, a Roma-rights group, told RFE/RL that he has called on both French and Romanian authorities not to victimize the Roma minority. "Roma are not the only protagonists of this phenomenon. They are more visible, that is true, but they are not the only ones. Therefore, [we warned that French and Romanian] authorities should not consider concluding documents or treaties regarding only the Roma minority," Bercus said.
Bercus was part of a Roma delegation that met with Sarkozy during his visit. He said that he appealed for protection of Roma women and children who are falling victims to traffickers.
Bercus told RFE/RL that harsher measures must be taken against those involved in the trafficking, including public servants such as border guards. "We highlighted the fact that [Roma] women and children, who are the most vulnerable groups and who most often fall victim to human-trafficking networks, must be protected. They should be regarded as victims by the two states [France and Romania]. Meanwhile, extra measures must be taken against those who run the trafficking networks and those who facilitate their activities, whether or not they are Roma, such as public servants or border policemen. Thus, it is those who run such rings who deserve extra attention from authorities," Bercus said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Alexandru said cooperation between the government and Roma civic groups has improved substantially in Romania and has benefited from European Union financial support.
Alexandru told RFE/RL that the Romanian government is interested in preserving the rights of all Romanians to travel freely. "At the Interior Ministry level, we have established a very close cooperation with Roma organizations, and there are many programs, some of them funded by the EU and other international organizations, for the social reintegration of the Roma population. We also have prevention programs for ethnic Roma. The Interior Ministry is interested in the right to free movement for all Romanian citizens, and not [only] for a certain ethnic group," Alexandru said.
But Romania's social-democrat government, which boasts the abolition of the EU visa regime as one of its main achievements, has warned that it will promote what it calls a "zero-tolerance policy" toward those who are committing crimes abroad and harming Romania's international image. There has been no comment from French officials about reintroducing visas for Romanian citizens.
French authorities, meanwhile, appear satisfied, at least for the time being, with Bucharest's steps to prevent a further increase in the number of Romanian criminals in France. Sarkozy said Paris understands Romania's concerns about its image, which, he concluded, "cannot be stained by the actions of a small minority."