Italy’s Roma forced eviction crisis demands EU action

For Roma, Italy’s so-called ‘Nomad Emergency’ never really ended, it just became invisible.

A pre-fabricated home with Police tape blocking entry is seen in an official Roma camp in Rome, Italy June 27, 2018 [Tony Gentile/Reuters]

On the morning of April 22, at about 8:00, a handful of police officers and municipal waste management workers arrived under a concrete overpass on Rome’s east ring road to evict 15 Roma living in a makeshift settlement there.

In a matter of hours, the impromptu structures, tents, mattresses, and camp-stoves were cleared away and the people were ordered to leave the noisy, dirty strip of wasteland they briefly called home.

The eviction was one of five which took place across Italy that week, as part of the authorities’ regular clearances of improvised living places inhabited by Romani families who have nowhere else to go.

These encampments are what the Italian government has long referred to as “informal nomad camps” – informal meaning they are not one of the formal segregated camps built by the government, and nomad meaning they are exclusively home to people of Romani ethnicity whom Italian society still refers to as nomads (based on the assumption that all Roma are nomadic by nature).

Italian authorities have been placing Roma in segregated camps on the edges of urban areas, far from public services or any chance of finding employment, since the 1960s.

In 2008, however, then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi stepped up the state’s mistreatment of the Roma minority by declaring a so-called “Nomad Emergency”. Defining the presence of Roma in Italy as a threat to public security, the Nomad Emergency created powers to conduct censuses in Roma settlements, as well as to close down informal Roma camps in derogation of laws that protect human rights.

As a result, government-built Roma-only camps became Italy’s main solution to its imagined “nomad problem”. The emergency turned Roma into a security issue, and the policies put in place then set the template for how authorities have been dealing with Roma ever since.

The Italian government officially committed to stop constructing new Roma-only camps in 2017, but there are at least 119 segregated camps and shelters still operated by authorities in Italy according to the latest estimate by Italian NGO Associazione 21 Luglio.

Over the years, living conditions in these camps deteriorated significantly. The number of people living in most camps ballooned way beyond capacity. In response, rather than providing adequate, permanent housing to camp residents, the Italian government started issuing eviction orders and kicking out residents who have nowhere else to go.

The majority of people who have been evicted from these government-built camps ended up living in informal camps elsewhere, sometimes a stone’s throw away from the site where the formal camp once stood. Others have been relocated by the authorities into other formal camps, shelters, or temporary housing solutions. In any case, all are just living on borrowed time until the cycle of eviction and re-eviction begins again.

In the past four years there have been 187 such evictions of Romani families, making 3,156 people homeless. These figures come from a census of forced evictions released by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), compiled from news reports and civil society activists.

This census shows that there has been a steady trickle of forced evictions (almost one per week) going on for years across Italy. Taken as a whole, these evictions constitute a large-scale human rights crisis and show that for Roma, the “Nomad Emergency” never really ended, it just became invisible.

Technically, many of these evictions are illegal under national and international law. They are often carried out without proper consultation, without a reasonable notice period, and usually without adequate alternative accommodation being offered (usually only temporary shelter).

However, Italian authorities do not seem to be losing any sleep over the illegality of their actions towards Roma.

In 2018, authorities in Rome ignored an order by the European Court of Human Rights to halt the evacuation of the Camping River formal camp, and evicted more than 300 Roma living there.

Only nine percent of the former residents found a housing solution in the months following the eviction. More than half of the evicted Roma ended up living on the streets: under bridges, in cars, or in makeshift informal camps. A further 99 people were transferred to reception centres or temporary facilities, rather than integrated social housing.

Most of the evictions documented by the ERRC over the last four years have involved relatively small numbers of people – several families at a time, evicted from small informal camps. But the frequency of the evictions is concerning. In recent months there have been several per week, and last year evictions took place even during the strict COVID-19 lockdowns.

The evidence in ERRC’s census should serve as a wakeup call for the European Commission, in case they are under any delusions about the reality of the situation for Roma in Italy. The scale of the eviction crisis, and the continued existence of segregated formal camps, flies in the face of the European Commission’s decision to block a report on the mistreatment of Roma in Italy in 2017, and to end the investigation into the issue altogether two years later.

Human rights activists have long argued that the existence of formal camps for Roma in Italy contravenes the access to housing provision in the EU’s Racial Equality Directive. Additionally, the ongoing eviction crisis clearly constitutes “harassment deemed to be discrimination” also provided for in the Directive.

This is the lasting legacy of Berlusconi’s “Nomad Emergency”. It should demonstrate to the European Commission that Italy still has a case to answer regarding its treatment of Roma. Instead the Commission, seemingly convinced by promises to “overcome the system of camps” by the Italian government, decided that the situation of Roma in Italy required no further action on its part. Despite the continued existence of ethnically segregated government camps, despite the discriminatory harassment of Romani families through repeated forced evictions, the Commission continues to defer any action against Italy.

Increasingly it seems that there is one rule for member states in the East and another for those in the West when it comes to legal action over discrimination against Roma.

While the European Commission has opened infringement procedures against the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and more recently Bulgaria, for discrimination against Roma, it is yet to take any action at all against more powerful member states such as Italy.

The EU’s prevaricating proves what its own Fundamental Rights Agency has said since 2018: the Racial Equality Directive is simply not fit for purpose in protecting the rights of Romani citizens of the EU. Many activists would argue that it is not simply a question of an ineffective mechanism, but of a fundamental lack of political will in Brussels to take a strong stance on racism that goes beyond conferences and unenforceable “action plans”.

The European Commission has a moral duty to implement its Racial Equality Directive in a way that ensures Italy provides equal access to social housing for all, not just dump Roma in segregated camps or evict them from their homes. The longer the EU waits to take action, the stronger the message it is sending to Italy and the rest of Europe that discriminating against Roma will go unchallenged from the top.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.