Roma, one of Europe’s most marginalized minorities, continue to be targeted in many countries with forced evictions – a situation that locks them into a cycle of displacement and human rights violations that affect every aspect of their lives. In Italy, this phenomenon has been especially pronounced, with an increasing number of informal settlements demolished by authorities across the country.

The destruction of Gianturco

On 7 April 2017, the Roma informal settlement of Gianturco, in the city of Naples, southern Italy, was demolished. All that was left of it after the bulldozers had finished were a few toys and pieces of furniture abandoned in the rubble.

For several years, around 1,300 Romanian Roma, including hundreds of children and elderly, sick and disabled people, had called this place ‘home’. Many had left Romania in search of a better future. ‘If there was work at home [in Romania], we would not have come here’, said one of the Gianturco inhabitants shortly before the April 2017 forced eviction. In fact, acute poverty, lack of access to health care, inadequate living conditions and forced evictions, coupled with deep-rooted discrimination grounded in centuries of persecution and discrimination, are among the many factors that push thousands of Romanian Roma to travel abroad to countries like Italy, France, Spain and elsewhere in search of a better life for themselves and their children.

But even once they made it to Italy, many Roma, like the Gianturco residents, faced a harsh reality. Most of them had already lived through countless forced evictions before settling there, in the hope of finding some stability in their lives.

Many of the houses had been built painstakingly by their inhabitants, using whatever materials were available, and slowly improved over time with the limited resources they had. It took local authorities just four hours to raze the entire settlement to the ground. By eleven o’clock that morning, Gianturco no longer existed.

The threat to the community first came in January 2016, when a court issued an order for the eviction, giving families just 30 days to leave the privately owned land where Gianturco was located. But these families had nowhere else to go. While the municipality managed to negotiate some extensions of the deadline to delay the eviction by a year or so, they failed during those months to carry out a genuine consultation to explore possible alternatives to the eviction and rehousing options for all of the affected inhabitants.

As a result, on the morning when the demolitions began, there were still around 200 people still living in the settlement: while many had already left, driven out by ongoing harassment by police in the run-up to the eviction and the fear of what would happen to them if they stayed, some simply had nowhere else to go. Cristina was among those who stayed. ‘I came here to build a life. I have had two operations. Where do I go? What do I do?’ she said, in tears. ‘We go on the streets,’ answered her husband, while packing up their few treasured belongings.

One girl at Gianturco on the day of the eviction stood with her brother and watched the bulldozers approaching their homes. ‘Here we were fine,’ she said. ‘We liked it. We had three rooms, one for me, one for my brother, and one for my parents. The house was big. Where they will take us, we don’t know how it will be.’

Following the forced eviction and the sealing of the area, around 130 of Gianturco’s residents were relocated to a new segregated camp on Via del Riposo. Segregated by a fence from the surrounding area, it comprised a small concrete area on which dozens of containers sat. Years ago, there was apparently another camp which was set on fire by unknown assailants. When the families were relocated there on 7 April, graffiti on the wall opposite the camp read ‘No to Roma’ – a stark testament to the hatred and discrimination Roma still face in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.

These containers were the only housing offered to around 20 of the Gianturco families, based on criteria that were never clearly and transparently explained by local authorities, while a few others were accommodated in a reception centre in town. They were, however, the ‘lucky’ ones: for hundreds of other families that once lived in Gianturco, there was nothing. Some moved in with friends temporarily, while many others spent weeks sleeping rough in parks, abandoned buildings and cars. A large number of those uprooted were left with no other choice but to move to other informal settlements elsewhere in and around Naples, placing them at risk of threat of forced evictions in the near future.

The situation of Italy’s Roma

The eviction of the Gianturco settlement is not an isolated incident: indeed, it represents a sad but by no means untypical example of the widespread and entrenched discrimination Roma face in Italy. International and national human rights organizations have for years documented a pattern of human rights abuses perpetrated against the country’s Roma: segregated camps, lack of access to social housing and a repeated cycle of forced evictions remain a daily reality for many of the 120,000 to 180,000 Roma estimated to be living across Italy.

In February 2012, the Italian government adopted its National Strategy for Roma Inclusion, aiming to define the roadmap for public policies until 2020. Among other actions, it proposed the gradual elimination of poverty and social exclusion among marginalized Roma communities in the areas of education, health care, employment and housing. The strategy promised to ‘overcome’ informal settlements and recognized that forced evictions had disproportionately targeted Roma in Italy. But, while farsighted on paper, more than six years on, the grand ambitions of the National Strategy ring hollow: no concrete progress has been achieved in implementing sustainable integration and housing policies. Successive Italian governments have failed, or not even seriously tried, to address the community’s exclusion.

The list of forced evictions carried out in recent years in cities across the country bears this out. According to the Rome-based Associazione 21 Luglio, an organization working for many years to document the human rights abuses suffered by Roma, in 2017 alone at least 230 forced evictions of Roma were registered across Italy, with hundreds if not thousands of people displaced. Those affected are frequently not provided with adequate information about the eviction, let alone genuinely consulted about feasible alternatives, and often families may find out about an eviction just a few days before it takes place. In many cases they are not given any legal documentation such as court orders or individual notices, nor the chance to challenge the eviction and seek an effective remedy. Alternative accommodation is often unavailable or only consists of temporary accommodation for women and children in public dormitories and emergency shelters.

These forced evictions have devastating consequences that extend well beyond the immediate trauma of displacement. Having been rendered homeless, families usually have no alternative but to rebuild improvised dwellings elsewhere, often in even more precarious living conditions than before. This traps them in a vicious circle of continuous forced evictions that, with each new wave of damage and disruption, places education and employment further out of reach.

The chilling pattern of forced evictions of Roma in Italy needs to be read in conjunction with the long-standing and systematic policy of authorities to build and maintain formal camps for Roma. Thousands of families are currently living in segregated, mono-ethnic camps set up by authorities across the country specifically for Roma. Associazione 21 Luglio’s most recent data shows that 148 formal camps have been built in 87 cities and towns across the country, housing some 16,400 inhabitants, while the number of people living in informal settlements is almost 10,000. This trend is only likely to continue, with the promise of the recently formed national government in May 2018 to forcibly close all informal Roma settlements, potentially affecting thousands of people.

Regional and municipal regulations enable Italian authorities to construct and administer Roma-only camps, often located far away from basic services in areas unsuitable for human habitation, such as near waste damps and airport runways. Living conditions in these camps are frequently inadequate, failing to meet international human rights standards and even national regulations on housing. Tellingly, in many cases, the option of being rehoused in camps is only offered to Roma by the authorities following forced evictions from informal settlements. One example is the relocation in 2013 of a group of Roma men, women and children in La Barbuta, a Roma-only camp next to the Ciampino airport runway in Rome: despite the Rome Civil Court ruling in 2015 that the relocation was discriminatory, they remain there to this day. Municipal authorities, while recently announcing their intention to close down the camp, have yet to offer clear details of what this would involve.

The responsibility for these human rights violations lies not only with the Italian government, but also with the European Union, which to date has failed to take any effective action against these abuses beyond a preliminary investigation in 2012 that has yet to develop into concrete proceedings for violation of EU law. Nor is Italy alone in the widespread discrimination perpetrated against its Roma population, which numbers around 10 to 12 million in Europe as a whole. Across the region, hundreds of thousands of Roma live in informal settlements as a result of policies that deny them adequate housing options. This is often part of a wider backdrop of discrimination and exclusion, from substandard Roma-only schools and classes to violent attacks and hate crimes that overshadow their lives. Until substantive, politically meaningful policies are put in place, there is no end in sight to the segregation of Roma and the discrimination against them.

Catrinel Motoc

Header photo: Cristina, a Roma woman who stayed in the Gianturco settlement, Italy, as her community was evicted. Credit: Amnesty International / Claudio Menna.

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