Litigating Housing Segregation: the La Barbuta Case
27 July 2015
On 30 May 2015, the Court of Rome condemned the city for discriminating against Roma by forcibly relocating them to La Barbuta camp in the outskirts of the city. We waited for more than three years. It was worth it.
With Silvio Berlusconi’s enactment of a State of Emergency Decree in May 2008, the Municipality of Rome adopted a plan targeting the city’s informal Roma settlements. The plan involved the relocation of all the Roma living in the city’s informal camps to “formal camps” in the outskirts. La Barbuta, the construction of which began in September 2011, was one such formal camp.
In November 2011, Italy's Consiglio di Stato1, the supreme administrative court, ruled that the decree was illegal. A year later, after an appeal lodged by the Italian government, the Supreme Court of Cassation upheld the Consiglio’s decision striking down the “Nomad Emergency Measures”2.
Following logic and common sense (not to mention the rule of law), the city should have stopped the formal camps. However, despite the Italian Supreme Court confirming once and for all the illegality of the State of Emergency upon which the plan was designed and financed, the Italian authorities decided to go forward with it anyway. La Barbuta was officially opened in June 2012 to host around 650 Roma.
We talk a lot about school segregation, but rarely do we talk about housing segregation; people like to think about Roma housing as some kind of a humanitarian issue, but the segregationist forces at play in Italy’s formal camps are not so different, say, from those at play in Central Europe’s segregated schools.
In March 2012, Associazione 21 Luglio and Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione brought an antidiscrimination action before the Court of Rome to challenge the existence of the camp as discrimination. The ERRC intervened in the case to support our partners.
The La Barbuta ruling is a landmark judgment.
It is the first time that a court has recognised that building segregated housing for Roma in the deprived outskirts of large cities amounts to racial segregation.
Through its detailed analysis of the grounds upon which La Barbuta camp is discriminatory, the Italian court gave us a solid base upon which to challenge housing segregation around the country and Europe. The Court took into account the various characteristics of the camp, such as its function, location, permanent nature, the facilities and rules governing it, as well as the provisions regulating access to social houses for its inhabitants, and declared that this treatment amounts to indirect discrimination unjustified by any concerns regarding public order and which cannot be considered positive action. Each of the points considered in this decision demonstrate why segregated housing solutions, no matter what they are called, must be overcome before Roma can achieve genuine equality.
The court went out of its way to make specific references to the Racial Equality Directive and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. By doing so, it held Rome to account under European and international obligations, a rare reminder to segregationists that they are operating in a complex environment.
In particular, the Court stressed that the general recommendations and concluding observations issued by the “guardians” of these instruments (EU and UN bodies) must be followed in order to ensure compliance with the instruments themselves.
Housing segregation continues. Though segregationist policies are no longer officially linked to public order or security emergencies in Italy, they remain in place as officially declared “positive actions” aiming to improve Roma situation and inclusion3. That is a perversion of the idea of positive discrimination. These camps stigmatise Roma while depriving them of any opportunity to integrate. In many cases, they put them in physical danger. These camps have a major impact on the lives of Roma, condemning them to a precarious existence and preventing them from enjoying other fundamental rights, such as their rights to health and education, which are deeply linked with the right to housing.
This judgment marks a turning point.
Or maybe it would be better to say that it should mark a turning point. If it’s true that a judgment can provoke a change which politics is unable or unwilling to achieve, the question becomes whether the Roma rights movement will take the lead and reformulate the problems of Roma housing as a segregation issue, not merely a crisis of poverty. We need to do that in and outside the courtroom, in many more cases. Italy with its segregationist cities gives us plenty of opportunities. One of the key lessons of the case is that NGOs themselves can take on these cases in court as plaintiffs (at least in Italy). It is a way to take a case to the “right side” of our strategic litigation plane . In housing cases, it shifts the focus onto what we are dealing with: a racist practice designed to exclude Roma.
It is well known that the European Commission is looking into whether these policies violate EU law. Cases like this will give them the courage and basis to start infringement proceedings, which we hope to see very soon.
1 See the Consiglio di Stato judgment No. 6050/2011 of the 16 November 2011
2 See the judgment in Italian at http://www.asgi.it/wp-content/uploads/public/corte_cassazione_9687_13.pdf
3 Some of the most recent cases the ERRC is monitoring and expressed concern are the construction of a tent camp in Cosenza (see http://www.errc.org/article/roma-only-tent-camp-set-up-for-children-and-elderly-in-consenza/4367) or the attempt by Naples Municipality to use ERDF fund meant to promote inclusion to build another “brand new segregating camp” in Cupa Perillo (see http://www.errc.org/article/errc-and-its-partners-sent-a-letter-of-concern-on-behalf-of-the-proposed-use-of-eu-funds-for-a-segregated-camp-in-naples-italy/4335).