Roma people in the Italian capital are being denied access to social housing – despite living in segregated and basic camps, far from facilities such as schools and hospitals. Rome’s authorities have put in place regulations which prevent thousands of Roma, many of whom were born in Italy, from applying for public housing in a move which has angered human rights groups.
Under the new rules, anyone living in a formal camp – fenced-off areas far from work opportunities, usually patrolled by guards and with cramped metal containers for housing – is deemed to be in permanent accommodation, and therefore cannot apply for social housing.
Campaigners suspect the move is politically-motivated – the rules that govern housing allocation having been amended at the last moment, to prevent Roma from competing for the highly-coveted properties. They claim it is the latest in a long list of Italian policies which discriminate against Roma people in the country.
Costanza Hermanin, programme officer at the Open Society Foundation (OSF), says: “The authorities in Italy simply don’t conceive of Roma as normal human beings. This new regulation is plainly discriminatory, and also counter-productive as it prevents them from integrating properly into society.”
Camp families had not previously been eligible for public housing in Rome, but this has appeared to change at the end of December. The city authorities issued a public notice, stating that the maximum eligibility score – category A1 – would now be granted to those in “greatly disadvantaged housing conditions,” including families “in centres, public dormitories or any other appropriate structures temporarily provided by entities, institutions and recognised and authorised charitable organisations dedicated to public assistance.”
This appeared to include the official camps, in which upwards of 4,000 Roma live; scores of families prepared and lodged applications. But within weeks a clarification was published, excluding so-called “nomad camps” whose containers were to be regarded as permanent structures.
Italy’s treatment of its Gypsy minority is regularly challenged by human rights groups. Its system of formal camps emerged in the 1970s, when inhabitants were mainly showpeople and Sinti, an indigenous Italian Gypsy group with ethnic connections to the Roma. In the early 1990s, there was an influx of Roma from the former Yugoslavia, followed later by migrants from Romania and other European Union accession states.
As many as 10,000 Roma in Italy are thought to be technically stateless, either through not being granted citizenship by the former Yugoslavian state or because they were born to foreign parents (Italy does not grant automatic citizenship through birth). Those without papers are at risk of police checks and legal action.
In 2008, Silvio Berlusconi‘s government gave municipal authorities emergency powers to survey, register and move Roma. Since then the sanctioned camps have been managed much more strictly: fenced, surrounded by CCTV, patrolled by guards and often with early curfews and a requirement to sign in visitors.
A Roma-only fingerprint database is being compiled, and camp residents must have no criminal convictions – a condition that is not required for social housing allocation in the country. The latest camp, La Barbuta, opened in June 2012 next to the runway of Rome’s Ciampino airport.
Residents of the many illegal settlements across the city face worse conditions. They live without access to water, sanitation or electricity, and are often evicted in dawn raids in which they are given a choice between repatriation or a place in a segregated formal camp.
Hermanin says: “I think when the municipal authorities realised they had put Roma and very poor citizens from Rome in the same category for social housing they felt they needed to do something, hence the change in rules. There is a lot of hostility towards Roma among politicians and the media.
“They say Roma are not segregated from the rest of the city, and that people are only housed in these camps temporarily. But we say they are giving the residents no choices and no opportunity to move on, integrate and live normal lives.”
OSF has joined forces with Amnesty International, Associazione 21 Luglio and the European Roma Rights Centre to oppose Rome’s policy and are calling on the new Italian government and the European Commission to take action.
Amnesty has also made a submission for the opening of a EU infringement procedure against Italy over its segregation of Roma residents, including this social housing policy.
Elisa De Pieri, an Amnesty researcher, says: “We think this is plainly discriminatory, because the Roma are being prevented from getting out of segregation. We are not saying there should be preferential treatment for the Roma families but we think they should be treated the same as other residents and allowed to apply for housing.”