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Field report: Italy

7 November 1997

I travelled to Italy in late August to participate in a three-day work shop about Roma, held during the "Third European Anti-Racist Meeting" in Cecina Mare in western Italy. Having discussed the situation of Roma in Italy with the domestic participants at this workshop, I very soon realised that I should stay a few more days in the country and do some unplanned field-work before returning to Budapest. I am totally amazed by what I saw and learned about the situation of Roma in Italy during these few days, and I strongly suggest that we conduct a proper field research there soon.

In Italy, the issue of Roma is reduced to an issue of nomads. This means that the question that the wider populace, the authorities, and most of the activists dealing with Roma alike constantly pose themselves is "how to deal with this socially un-adaptable, nomadic population whose traditional, indigenous lifestyle is incompatible with the conditions set by a modern, European society."

Outrageous already when you hear it, but even more so when you go and see who these so-called "nomads" are and the result of this seemingly harmless approach on the human rights situation of Roma in Italy.

These "nomads" are primarily Yugoslav Roma, from all over the territory of former Yugoslavia. They are Roma from Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia, who have arrived in Italy in several waves. Some of them had already come thirty years ago, while others, mainly Bosnian Roma, came to seek refuge from the war. Among them are also Roma from Romania.

They told me they don't have many things in common, but that they alt share one big concern, which is that they all had houses which, for various reasons, they left behind and that ever since they arrived in Italy, they have been asking in vain to be housed properly. As one man who came to Italy in 1989 from Kosovo told me in one of the camps in Florence, "We are not used to living in conditions like these. In Yugoslavia, we had houses and we lived like everybody else. We cannot make them understand that we don't want to live like this. They force us to live according to their idea of Gypsy life. They have made us nomads now, in the twentieth century."

I learned that the approximately 40,000 immigrant Roma live all over the country, mostly in or on the outskirts of the major cities such as Rome, Florence, Turin, Bologna, Milan, Venice, Genoa and Naples. They live in camps ranging between 20 and 2000 people. Their homes consist of vans or huts they have built for themselves. The more fortunate ones have chemical toilets and water-taps placed in the centre of the settlement in which they have been stowed. The less fortunate have nothing at all but the piece of land on which they can barely survive.

Thanks to the help of Piero Colacicchi in Florence and Carlo Chiaramonte in Rome, I had the chance to see a total of nine camps in these two Italian cities. I first spent two days in Florence, visiting Roma camps with Piero Colacicchi, a member of the Association for the Defence of the Rights of Minorities (Associazione per la difesa dei dritti delta minoranze Frenze), a small but deter mined civil rights organisation based in Florence. He has been doing voluntary work to help Roma in Florence for the past ten years. According to Mr Colacicchi, there are around 700 Roma in Florence and in the area surrounding the city. He told me that until 1987, Roma in Florence were dispersed and lived in small, spontaneous camps in self-chosen groups. In that year, however, the city authorities began to move Roma together into three big camps, taking no account of their places of origin or time of arrival to Italy. He told me, "With the wave of Yugoslav Roma immigrating to Italy, huge concentration camps came into being here. They were moved like cattle. Local laws and regulations based on old ideas of Roma as nomads were adopted and they stipulated where Roma could settle. There has been no ambition whatsoever to provide Roma with adequate housing. The only thing the authorities wanted to achieve with these camps was to control the Roma, not to help them. Italy is not prepared and does not want to be prepared to take immigrants."

We visited seven Roma camps in and slightly outside of Florence. Only two of these camps are "organised camps", Mr Colacicchi explained to me. This means that the Roma who live in these camps were moved there by the city authorities, and that there is running water, electricity and chemical toilets in them. At the entrance of these organised camps there is a kind of check-point, where employees from the municipal authorities keep the camp under constant surveillance, and where outside visitors must present ID papers and give the name of the resident they have come to visit. A third camp that city authorities created in 1987 has been closed since then. Over the past thirty years, only three families have managed to leave the camps and move into decent flats. Approximately 500 Roma live in the two "organised" camps of Florence.

In addition to these two "official" camps, I saw another five camps in Florence. The living conditions in these are truly deplorable. Here, Roma are provided with no services whatsoever by the city authorities. Apart from being forced to live without water, toilets and electricity, the residents are constantly threatened with expulsion and violence on the part of the police, who raid them systematically to force them to leave. According to witness testimony, raids tend to take place early in the morning, with groups of approximately fifty policemen invading the camp area and breaking into vans and huts — often destroying them and other property — and threatening to come back every day until the Roma leave. Many of the Roma I talked to had been forced to move several times already, and in none of the instances had the authorities provided them with any alternate place to go.

In one of the camps, where a community of fifty Bosnian Roma live on the outskirts of Florence, we happened to witness a visit by a group of representatives of the local authorities. These included members of the district council (one of whom was a woman who represented the "Office for Nomads", i.e. the one dealing with Roma), the Florence Mayor's Office, and the police, who had come to the camp to confirm that the living conditions in it were unacceptable and that the Roma, therefore, would have to leave. They did not suggest any concrete measures to find the residents another place to go, however. The next day when we went back to the camp, the Roma told us that later the same day, the police had returned to tell them they had 24 hours to leave, unless they wanted to see all their belongings destroyed by bulldozers. Two days later, on September 4, police acting on the order of the mayor's office liquidated the camp of Bosnian Roma in Florence, forcing the fifty Roma living there on the move again. According to Mr Colacicchi, the police in Florence often act on their own initiative when harassing the Roma. He told me that in early August this year, for instance, he was called at dawn by a Rom from another camp because the police were there carrying out a raid and threatening to destroy it. Mr Colacicchi immediately contacted the president of the district council to request an explanation for the police raid. The district council president told him, however, that he had not ordered the action and that the police, therefore, must have undertaken it on their own initiative.

Apart from being threatened with expulsion and the destruction of propeerty, Roma told me that young men are arbitrarily arrested and taken to the police station for no apparent reason other than to keep them aware of the fact that they are constantly being observed. I was also told that cars driven by Roma are always stopped and searched and that police often confiscate money and gold from Roma, both during raids in the camps and when stopping their cars. One young man told me, "They act as if it was theirs. If they find money which you cannot prove is yours with a bank receipt, they take it. They enter our houses as if they were their own. They do whatever they want with us."

The two Roma camps in Rome are fairly similar to the ones I saw in Florence, but bigger. Huge camps filled with upset Roma who reported abuse of various kinds. One of them, called "Casilino 700", is the home of 1200 Roma and there are nine chemical toilets in it. Residents told me the camp was set up thirty years ago. There is no running water in it. No electricity. It was a depressing scene. A scene that should not be allowed to exist. A scene of which a western European country which has been a long time member of the European Union, NATO and the Council of Europe should be ashamed.

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