Bari, Italy – After announcing they were running for office in local municipality elections in Bari, the city they have lived in for 20 years, Ligia and Daniel Tomescu were showered with hostile comments on social media.
Alongside the European Parliament vote, local elections will be held across Italy.
The Tomescus are running for seats in the local council on a left-wing list to represent the Roma, a community under increasing pressure and discrimination.
Attacks that have intensified in the lead-up to the European elections.
The couple, Romanian citizens and, therefore, able to run in local elections in another EU country, live in a small camp in Japigia, a neighbourhood in the outskirts Bari, in southern Italy.
It is the only legal camp in the area, and has water, electricity, and basic hygiene services.
A highway separates the camp, which is hemmed in by a fence, separating it from the rest of the neighbourhood.
“In Italy, there is a huge difference when you talk about the Roma and other [migrant communities],” said Daniel, sitting outside his home built with wood, corrugated iron and other recycled material.
“When it comes to the Roma, a line is drawn. Talking about politics, there are many people who are instrumentalised by it, and right at the centre of this spiral is where you find the Roma.”
The Italian branch of Amnesty International has been monitoring online hate speech in the country in the lead-up to the European Parliament elections, which end on Sunday, finding that the Roma community has sparked the most heated debates. Eighty percent of the content published by the public and politicians running for office has been negative.
“We have been citizens of Bari for 20 years,” said Ligia, a softly-spoken woman, adding she was particularly offended by one of the comments that accused the two of not representing anyone.
“When we first arrived at Bari, we found volunteers teaching us to wash our hair,” she remembers with a smile. “It was so embarrassing but I didn’t speak Italian so I couldn’t say anything. Once they got to know us in later years, it was they who felt embarrassed.”
The couple sold their house and bar they were running in Romania because of Daniel’s political activities.
“At the time, I was writing about discrimination against the Roma in Romania,” said Daniel. “At one point, I just had to disappear.”
In Italy, he eventually bought a truck and set up a removal service cooperative, while Ligia earned an Italian high-school diploma.
“The first thing [for Roma women] is education. Teaching them a job so they don’t go out and beg like they are used to doing,” Ligia said. “The second issue for women is voice. They don’t speak, they have this shame.”
She then takes out her phone and finds a picture of the day her candidacy was announced in mid-May, in which she is wearing a smart red top and black trousers.
She says that day was an exception. “If I’m around other Roma women wearing long skirts, and I am wearing trousers, it feels wrong. I will never renounce my own culture.”
Rights groups have warned that the past year has seen a progressive legitimation of anti-Roma discrimination.
“About 10 families left the camp in the past year,” Daniel said as he waved to one of the 150 residents of Japigia walking past his home. “Some have returned to Romania, others went elsewhere in Europe.”
Recent events in Rome confirm Daniel’s sentiment.
Since April, Roma families who were assigned social housing have faced a backlash from local residents of poor neighbourhoods in the eastern part of Rome.
Far-right groups have used the lack of council housing and neglect of Rome’s suburbs to incite the protests.
Activists and some of the Roma families who were assigned the homes told Al Jazeera they were besieged and intimidated inside their apartments for days.
In one case, CasaPound was given permission to set up a gazebo outside one of the apartment blocks.
CasaPound and Forza Nuova, neofascist parties, are contesting the European Parliament elections in Italy.
Sixty-five activists from both groups are under investigation for the Rome protests for crimes including incitement to racial hatred and assault.
The Roma rights association 21 Luglio counted195 forced evictions of informal settlements of all kinds throughout 2018.
Shortly after coming to power, Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and co-deputy prime minister, stirred anger when he announced he would carry out a census of the Roma community, before embarking on a campaign against rescue NGOs in the Mediterranean.
His party, the League, nearly doubled its consensus since, and the European elections will be a test for its dominance over its coalition partner, the Five Star Movement, which won the most votes in last year’s general election.
During the last eviction of more than 400 people including children and Italian citizens in Giugliano – near Naples – on May 10, the authorities posted a note aimed at local residents:
“Citizens are informed that following the eviction of the gypsy (Roma) camp in Giugliano, it is possible that they could reach ours and other nearby towns. We’re calling for citizens to stand firm, and take the necessary information and precautions should they be faced with the option of renting accommodation to people who break the law, with the aim of fighting crime.”
The evicted families had not been offered alternative accommodation.
“[It is] an official document which conveys a climate of hatred,” said the president of the 21 Luglio association, Carlo Stasolla. “This is the poisoned environment we are living in, and these are the consequences.”