Rome, Italy – Despite a decision by the European Court of Human Rights to halt the evacuation of a Roma camp in northern Rome, Italian police and municipal authorities evicted its roughly 300 residents on Thursday.
The operation at Camping River started in the early morning and deployed a large police contingent, continuing throughout the day. By early afternoon, however, more than 100 residents were still outside the camp’s gate with their belongings and said they had nowhere to go.
Some of the evicted families had been lucky to find some shade amid cardboard boxes, luggage, and piled up mattresses strewn in front of the entrance to the camp, as well as along the long country road that leads to the nearest village. A woman pushed a fridge up the road on a cart, but was not able to say where she was headed.
“I’ve seen many evictions, but this is the first time we are given no alternative,” Jemilia Mehmeti, a 44-year-old Kosovar, told Al Jazeera.
“Today, they should have come to bring us some answers. Instead, they came in with the cars, pushing and shoving,” Mehmeti continued.
“We were expecting it for tomorrow, not today. Everyone could have taken their things and left on their own. There was no need to be aggressive towards women and children; we’re not in a war.”
On July 24, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Italian government to halt the eviction following an appeal filed by three of the camp’s residents aided by human rights organisation Associazione 21 Luglio.
“The court had asked the government to clarify the situation of those who filed the recourse,” Elena Risi, a spokesperson for the organisation, told Al Jazeera. “The deadline was tomorrow.”
But Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, in a meeting with Rome’s Mayor Virginia Raggi on Wednesday, said the eviction was to proceed, despite the Strasbourg court’s decision.
“I’m interested in restoring the rule of law, regardless of what letters from courts say,” Salvini said.
Raggi pointed out this was a long-standing issue. “We are going ahead and yesterday, in less than 24 hours, we sent a response to the Strasbourg court.”
It was the end of a tug-of-war between the municipality and camp residents that had started last September, when the cooperative that formerly managed the camp pulled out after its contract expired and local authorities took over some of the basic services in the camp. According to residents, this led to the gradual deterioration of conditions.
Then in late June, the municipality began dismantling the camp, caravan by caravan, while residents found alternative refuge within or slept in tents next to the wreckage of their former homes.
In July 2017, the Rome administration decided to extend the city’s “Roma plan”, whose stated aim is integration, to residents of Camping River, one of the capital’s seven “equipped villages”. According to residents and observers, it is one of the best and most organised, and also has the highest percentage of children attending school.
But residents say none of the solutions proposed by the municipality worked. When offered cash to find apartments outside the camp, no one was able to find anywhere to rent.
“They gave us a paper that says in it we are of Sinti ethnicity. When we show that paper [to prospective landlords], they refuse to rent to us. I have been to agencies, I called,” said Adriana Staicu, a 36-year-old mother of four while sitting on a mattress outside the camp’s gates.
The municipality then put another offer on the table, that of voluntary repatriation. But only 14 out of about 370 residents had taken up the offer up as of today.
“My children have learned to read and write Italian, where do they want us to go?” Staicu, a cleaner who comes from Romania and has been in Italy for 15 years, added. Many children and teenagers from the camp are Italian citizens or were born and grew up here.
After weeks of protests, this morning some residents eventually accepted the municipality’s offer for women and children to be divided from men and be hosted in reception centres. The only alternative to that was a shantytown outside Rome, which Staicu found the least acceptable of all solutions.
“It would have been in a kind of plastic tent, with bunk beds,” Staicu, who said she had just returned from there with her 14-year-old daughter who has Down syndrome, recounted.
“When I saw the place, I cried. It would have been impossible to stay there under the sun in this heat. It would have been unsafe for my child. They say there are drug addicts there. I prefer staying here with the community I know, ’til they find me a better place. I will sleep here.”
The eviction comes just weeks after Salvini said Roma communities in Italy should be counted in a census, and if they are foreigners, deported. His statements sparked outrage among critics who argued that an ethnic-based census echoed the policies of a fascist regime.
Estimates put the number of Roma in Italy between 120,000 and 180,000 – one of the lowest in Europe – with about half holding Italian citizenship.
Rome remains the city with the most settlements, 17 formal and 300 informal. In 2017 alone, Associazione 21 Luglio documented 230 Roma evictions across Italy.
Another family among those left behind said they refused to be divided.
“They should have found a solution first, but they did nothing,” said Ianis Salkanovic, 41, whose five children include a two-year-old.
“You know when they last divided people, men on one side and women on the other? It was in 1941 when they took them away to gas chambers.”