Romanian migrants are the scourge of Paris – sleeping rough, begging and blamed for rising crime. Is this what awaits Britain when they start crossing the Channel?
Ilie Balaci and Marius Costantin will be on the move before long.
Their home is a makeshift camp on the grass verge of a busy road near the Stade de France, outside central Paris.
But it is hardly likely to stay that way: they and thousands of other Roma living in squalor in France await daily the arrival of the police.
When, almost inevitably, officers arrive to tear apart their bivouac, Ilie and Marius will be on the road again, quite possibly to Britain.
“The police have not come yet but they are going to come,” said Marius.
Ilie added: “We may try to find another space like this in France but we have thought about going to England as we can get social benefits there. And now there is talk about the papers being sorted for Roma as well in January, so we hope to be able to go then.”
Welcome to a very modern European dilemma: how to deal with the increasing numbers of Roma using European freedom of movement rules to leave Romania and gather in the biggest and wealthiest cities of the West, where they turn to begging and, according to the authorities, crime.
Paris is bearing the brunt of the influx, but London is an increasingly attractive destination. As The Sunday Telegraph disclosed last week, efforts to deal with the problems caused by the arrival of homeless beggars by paying their return fares home have proved to be a fiasco, with Roma simply boomeranging back after expenses-paid trips to Romania.
The problem in Paris is so great that it is being studied closely by Westminster city council, which is responsible for Park Lane in London, where a group of Roma is sleeping rough.
Under the current law, such Romanian migrants must leave Britain after 90 days unless they have found work. The council fears that London could see an escalation of its problems to those on the scale of Paris when all restrictions on Romanians living in Britain are lifted in the new year.
The camp where Ilie, 17, and Marius, 20, are living is four miles from the centre of Paris, where local authorities are sick of what they say are gangs of Roma beggars plaguing the city’s tourist areas.
Such camps — they are also found around Marseille, Lyon and other cities — have become the focus of action by the French authorities to make life tough for the Roma.
Even smaller towns have not escaped: earlier this month, 200 Roma were evicted from a camp in the town of Roubaix, close to the border with Belgium for reasons, according to the local mayor, of “security, hygiene and major inconvenience to local residents”.
So far this year more than 10,000 Roma have been evicted from informal settlements, but it does not appear to have stopped them. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Roma remain in France, the vast majority gathered in shanty towns.
The Roma have been arriving in France in large numbers over the past two years, mostly thanks to good transport links and the lack of passport controls, because France is part of the Schengen area of European countries that has no border controls.
In Romania they are largely unemployed. The proceeds of begging and — allegedly — crime are far greater in western Europe than at home
Complaints about unhygienic camps and rising crime and anti-social behaviour have been made at some of Paris’s most popular tourist sites.
Staff at the Louvre went on strike last month, saying they needed police protection from pickpockets, while 12 Romanians were arrested, accused of systematic robberies of visitors at attractions including the Eiffel Tower.
The ultimate problem — the same as the one causing concern in London — is that it is impossible to return the Roma to Romania effectively.
After the camps have been broken up, police often drive the Roma to the nearest border and try to persuade them to leave. Others are offered money to go, paid by local councils.
They were originally given €300 (£253) under a policy introduced by the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, but in February, as it became clear that many took the money, only to return later — as happened in London — the payments were reduced to €50 (£42) for each adult and €30 (£25) for children.
The policy has hardly solved the Roma crisis. Last week, dozens of young Roma were still begging, and apparently involved in crime, in Paris.
In the Les Halles district, as staff at the restaurants and cafés around the Fontaine des Innocents prepared for the lunch trade, a group of Roma teenagers gathered in the square.
They took cardboard boxes from rubbish bins, ripped them to A4 size and stuck pieces of paper on top.
The paper is a bogus petition, which they use to ask for “donations” for a deaf and dumb children’s association. After a short time the teenagers scatter, heading off to different parts of the city, where they approach passers-by, pointing at their ears as they ask for money.
One group of young Roma boys sitting on the kerb at the side of the road close to the Pompidou Centre said they did not steal but were open about the scam they used to get money.
Showing a piece of paper with the words “Deaf and Dumb Society” in English and French, they said they asked people to write their name and give a donation.
“It is begging, just in a different form,” one said.
“But what are we meant to do? We cannot get jobs in Romania. What would I do there, steal phones? We don’t want to do that, that is why we came here.”
He said the police would often chase them and take away their petitions, and on occasions, keep them in custody overnight.
One said he was beaten up by a man who accused him of stealing his telephone. The police were called and he said it was only when a translator arrived that he was let go.
What concerns authorities in Britain is that many of the Roma are now looking across the Channel.
One young man said: “We don’t steal, but people think we do because we are Roma. It is so hard but we do not want to leave France. My cousin is in England and he said we could get jobs collecting rubbish for £50 a day – so we might think about it – but we know the area here now.”
In London, Westminster city council is so concerned that it is holding a summit with Paris and other European cities to discuss ways to put pressure on the EU to give them greater powers to combat the problem.
The council has spent around £500,000 on clearing up mess at the Roma camp in London and on a dedicated community-protection team. Earlier this year, as part of a joint Home Office operation, a number of Romanian migrants were given free plane and bus tickets home.
However, The Sunday Telegraph found that many had returned to the UK within weeks. The council is now calling for beggars to be turned away at the port of entry and for a tougher stance from the Government.
Spotting the difference between beggars and Romanians coming on holiday or for social visits should not be hard, the council says.
Nickie Aiken, a Conservative councillor on Westminster city council, said: “I fear the scenes that The Sunday Telegraph has uncovered in France will start unfolding on the streets of Westminster unless we get a grip on our borders.
“We could be looking at a situation where similar groups from across Europe will basically have a free ticket from Paris to Park Lane, taking in a number of other capital cities along the way.”
Back at the Stade de France, Ilie and Marius are on their way from their camp to a market. They are carrying suitcases full of old clothes which they have collected from rubbish bins and hope to sell for €1 (80p) an item. They are joined by six other young boys, all pulling suitcases.
The money they make will be used to buy food for the camp, where around 15 Roma families live under plastic sheets, held up by rope between the trees.
Women there cook on a small stove while children run around barefoot.
If the police destroy the camp, as they almost certainly will, many say the next stop will be England.
Marius, whose girlfriend has just had a baby, said: “We are not going back to Romania, the snow has already come, 11cm has already fallen in the north and we can’t get jobs there. What choice do we have?”
See on www.telegraph.co.uk