Rome – An informal refugee camp in Rome which opened at the height of the crisis in 2015 was evacuated on Tuesday, sending several vulnerable people onto the streets as winter sets in.
Located in an empty car park near one of Rome’s main train stations, the Baobab camp would normally host around 300 people, mostly transiting for a few days or months.
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While the eviction had been expected for weeks, around 150 people were still at the camp on Tuesday morning when police vans surrounded and closed the area.
Some residents loaded suitcases and plastic bags with their belongings onto police vans before being driven away to a police station for identification.
While the Rome municipality offered places in reception centres to some of the refugees, not everyone will have a place to go after bulldozers finish clearing their tents.
“We have been negotiating with the municipality for the past week,” said Andrea Costa, one of the activists running the camp. “We thought they’d take a few more days as we were promised 120 places. Up to this morning, the number of people relocated was 65.”
According to the Rome municipality, 75 people were assigned alternative accommodation this past week, meaning at least dozens have nowhere to go.
Originally set up to deal with the high number of arrivals to Italy, in recent years Baobab had become a transit place for refugees who fell out of the reception system, were never offered a place, or were sent back to Italy under the Dublin regulation – which allows European countries to return asylum seekers to the country where they first registered. There were also a handful of homeless people, including Italians, at the camp.
Said* (not his real name), an Egyptian man in his fifties who has lived in Italy for 20 years, dragged his few belongings on a shopping trolley down the street leading out of the camp. Some of the bags contained goods he sells without a license on the streets of Rome.
He has been homeless for the past 10 years after personal difficulties, and said he was heading to the municipality’s social services to see if they could find a temporary solution.
“There’s no place for all of us, not just from Baobab. You go there and they tell you, come back tomorrow,” he said.
Baobab is one of many informal settlements in the capital, which hosts 3,500 of at least 10,000 refugees and migrants living mostly in abandoned buildings without basic infrastructure, according to an MSF report published earlier this year.
While some may have been denied international protection, others are simply waiting for their application to be examined and would have the right to housing.
“It is absurd that the municipality is not able to find a place [in reception centres] for a few hundred people, it is absurd to continue to fan citizens’ fears,” Costa said. “Rome won’t be a better place tonight.”
Costa added that a team of volunteers, lawyers and medics was ready to meet the migrants and refugees upon their release from the police station.
While lacking basic infrastructure, Baobab was run by volunteers who took care of daily food distribution and provided language classes, legal assistance, and medical help through NGOs.
It is the twenty-second time the camp is dismantled since it was opened.
The Italian railway company, which owns the land, had recently started building a fence around the camp as part of a plan to turn the area into a public park.
“It has been weeks that [far-right Interior Minister] Matteo Salvini and others in the governing coalition attack Baobab directly as one of those examples to persecute ‘accomplices’ of the migrants,” Costa told Al Jazeera.
Riportare legalità, ordine e sicurezza, quartiere per quartiere.
Dopo #Baobab arriveranno a Roma altri sgomberi: 4 edifici pericolanti e 23 interessati da iniziative giudiziarie.
Non ci fermeremo, questo è solo l'inizio, qui come in tutta Italia.#dalleparoleaifatti pic.twitter.com/ShR5lbMq7h
— Matteo Salvini (@matteosalvinimi) November 13, 2018
In September, Salvini sent an official letter to local authorities across the country asking them to speed up evictions of occupied buildings, starting with around 90 housing occupations located in the capital. Most of these house low-income families and pensioners on the waiting list for social housing.
The new directives would allow local governments to bypass a circular by the former interior minister that asked them to find alternatives for residents before proceeding with evictions.
“Enclaves, where the state and legality are absent, are no longer tolerated. We promised it, we are doing it. And it’s just the beginning,” said Salvini in a tweet, as bulldozers razed the tents activists and refugees had just rebuilt after a gust of bad weather destroyed the camp last week.