France sent dozens of Roma on flights home to Romania on Thursday in the first mass repatriation since President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled a crackdown on crime,a move condemned by human rights groups.
Some 60 Roma left on a chartered plane from Lyon and about a dozen boarded a flight from Paris,the first wave of transfers in a campaign to send 700 people living in squalid camps across France back to Romania and Bulgaria by the end of the month.
Following riots in two French cities last month,Sarkozy ordered 300 illegal camps of Roma dismantled as part of a crime crackdown targeting immigrants the government blames for a rise in violent crime in Frances poor suburbs.
Roma who agree to leave receive Euro300 and an additional Euro100 for each of their children.
France says the departures are all voluntary,though some Roma say they were coerced to leave and many are vowing to turn right around and come back to France.
I want to return. Its much easier there. Here we dont have any chance,no jobs,nothing,Ovidiu,a thin man of 23 from the Romanian city of Oradea, told reporters after arriving at Bucharest airport.
Roma are the largest ethnic minority in Europe. They are widely dispersed but concentrated mainly in central and eastern parts of the continent.
France repatriated some 10,000 Roma last year and other European countries,including Germany,Italy,Denmark and Sweden have taken similar steps. But the latest deportations have gained more attention and some French politicians,including a deputy in Sarkozys UMP party,have likened the raids on Roma camps to the roundup of Jews in Nazi-occupied France.
Others have accused Sarkozy of waging a cynical campaign to distract voters from an illegal donations scandal and high unemployment that have dogged his government and pushed his personal ratings near record lows.
Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi told French radio that he was worried Frances campaign could spark xenophobic reactions. The European Commission,the executive arm of the 27-nation European Union bloc,has said it is scrutinising the situation to ensure France does not violate bloc rules.