By Matteo de Bellis, Amnesty International’s researcher on Italy
A toddler, stumbling barefoot through thick mud is luckily not a common sight in modern-day Europe. But during a recent visit to a segregated camp built specifically to house Roma on the outskirts of Naples, this is exactly what I saw.
The Giugliano camp, set up by the local municipality next to a landfill containing toxic waste, illustrates clearly the hopeless situation Roma are forced into by Italy’s unwillingness to provide adequate accommodation for its Romani population.
When a court ordered the removal of Roma from the perilous conditions of Giugliano, authorities had a chance to do the right thing. Instead they again opted for another camp as an alternative place to live, ignoring the warnings of non-governmental organizations such as OsservAzione that this policy promotes the heartless segregation of the Romani community.
Unfortunately, Giugliano is not an isolated case. Italian authorities have marooned men, women and children in a Roma-only camp next to Ciampino airport runway in Rome, and haven’t provided suitable alternative accommodation for these people even after the Rome Civil Court ruled the relocation discriminatory.
Forced evictions of hundreds of residents from the camps of Lungo Stura Lazio in Turin and Via Idro in Milan in the last year – again without providing adequate alternative housing – further underlines the prejudicial horror show that accommodation for Roma in Italy has become.
The pattern is now firmly engrained. Authorities deem one Roma encampment uninhabitable, only to move residents to another segregated camp far away from basic services, and sometimes into conditions no human should be forced to live in – such as in Giugliano and Ciampino. Then, after neglecting this new camp for years, authorities cite health and safety concerns and forcibly evict Romani families yet again to another inadequate settlement – often a fresh segregated camp.
This constant merry-go-round of inadequate temporary encampments is virtually impossible for any Romani family seeking a better quality of life to escape from, due to Italian authorities barring Roma from alternative housing. Investments in social housing are minimal and selection criteria are extremely difficult for Romani families living in camps to meet.
The result? Thousands of one of Europe’s most marginalised minorities stranded in large, segregated mono-ethnic camps due to their racial and ethnic origin. In fact, people of Italian nationality, other nationals and stateless people alike live in these camps, all having one thing in common – being Roma.
Italy’s much heralded National Strategy for Roma Inclusion (NSRI) was supposed to rebalance the scales and open the doors to adequate housing that Romani communities desperately need. But four years into its implementation, phrases such as “Roma inclusion” and “national strategy” are now no more than buzzwords designed to maintain the smoke and mirror ‘successes’ of a failed and ineffective policy.
Allowing such injustices against Roma to continue not only flies in the face of what the NSRI set out to achieve, but clearly violates international human rights law and, crucially, the European Union’s Race Equality Directive – legislation banning discrimination in access to services, including housing.
It is high time the European Commission stepped in and initiated an infringement procedure against Italy for clearly breaching EU anti-discrimination law.
Such action would not be unprecedented. The Commission has in the past opened proceedings against the Czech Republic and Slovakia for discriminating against Romani children in schools, but it has never responded to states discriminating against Roma from access to adequate housing.
The next meeting of the College of Commissioners, just ahead of International Roma Day, should be taken as a perfect opportunity to put this right. Having delayed a decision for years on the topic, it is imperative that Commissioners live up to their stated commitment to the rule of law and send a decisive message that the enforced segregation of Roma within the Italian housing system will not be tolerated.
The halls of the European Union may appear far removed from the thick mud of the Giugliano Roma camp. Commissioners must bridge that gap and force Italy to move Roma away from toxic waste and airport runways, and into the adequate housing the children of Giugliano have the right to enjoy.
This article was originally published in EUobserver.