Poverty forces Roma people to scavenge toxic e-waste

Persecuted Roma communities in France are being forced to scavenge for dangerous e-waste, potentially threatening health and questioning the country's recycling policies

Roma communities in France, currently the subject of a controversial crackdown by the Sarkozy administration, are being forced to scavenge growing volumes of potentially dangerous e-waste in a bid to escape poverty, an Ecologist investigation has revealed.

Taking advantage of apparently ineffective waste recycling schemes, impoverished Roma people living in slums on the fringes of Paris - and elsewhere - are scouring the streets in search of discarded electrical and electronic goods in order to break the items down and extract key elements including aluminium, copper, iron and lead for sale to a network of scrap dealers.

Despite the implementation of the EU-wide Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE), and the introduction of other measures designed to allow the legal disposal of unwanted electrical and electronic goods, recovery rates remain low and as much as half of France's so-called e-waste is ending up in the hands of 'parallel networks', according to Ecologic, an official e-waste recycling organisation.

The country is estimated to generate some 1.5 million tonnes of electrical and electronic waste annually. Roma communities lack the necessary skills and equipment to safely break down sometimes toxic electrical and electronic goods, according to medical experts, with cables often burned in open fires to extract precious copper and old car batteries melted down for the lead.

Medical organisations, including Doctors of the World, are concerned Roma communities, particularly children, are at risk of serious health problems if the unofficial e-waste recycling continues. They cite previous studies into the issue that they claim show instances of lead poisoning in Roma children and the contamination of land used as a Roma camp.

Historical persecution

The French president Nicolas Sarkozy sparked controversy in July 2010 when he announced targeted evictions and expulsions of Roma travellers and communities from the country, provoking widespread criticism and condemnation from the European Commission. 

Recent EU figures suggest there are 10-12 million Roma living in Europe – making up the largest ethnic minority on the continent - with a further 15 million worldwide.

According to the BBC, more than a million Roma live in Turkey and Bulgaria; 400,000 live in France as part of long-established communities, in addition to a further 12,000 from Bulgaria and Romania, many of whom live in unauthorised and illegal camps. In the UK there are thought to be as many as 300,000 Roma, and in Spain numbers rise to 600-800,000.

The history of the Roma people is one of prejudice and persecution, with frequent references to them as 'Gypsies' and regular demonisation in the popular press. A 2008 Council of Europe-funded report, Recent Migration of Roma in Europe, suggested that much of this prejudice is fuelled by media distortions and the ensuing filtration of these into the wider public imagination.

The vast majority of Roma live in chronic poverty and are among the most deprived communities in Europe. According to Amnesty International, the situation of Roma people in Europe amounts to a profound human rights violation on several counts: they are frequently denied rights to basic housing, healthcare, employment and education, and are often victims of forced evictions, racist attacks and ill-treatment at the hands of the police. 

Oxfam cites further instances of institutional racism as well as overt discrimination towards Roma people: last year, Hungary elected a number of MEPs on an anti-Roma agenda and more recently the Czech government apologised for its policy of enforced sterilisation of Roma women during the last decade.

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