Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 15 October 2019

Half an hour from Rome but a world away: Italian Roma camp 'is an ethnic ghetto'

A government crackdown is targeting 40,000 Roma living in camps in Italy

'A resident of the Salone Camp for Italy's Roma ethnic minority passes a static caravan; the camp, which is home to 400  inhabitants, lies 15km from the centre of Rome. Callum Paton / The National
'A resident of the Salone Camp for Italy's Roma ethnic minority passes a static caravan; the camp, which is home to 400  inhabitants, lies 15km from the centre of Rome. Callum Paton / The National

The Roma camp on Via di Salone is a half hour drive from the Italian capital’s bustling centre but a world apart.

Samir Alija, 33, a former resident of the camp returns to the place he called home by slipping through a hole in the perimeter fence that runs around the camp. He picks his way through a hinterland of scrub, burnt grass and rusted scrap metal to reach the steel anti-climb barrier. Children’s clothes hang drying on its bars.

Samir, who called the Salone camp home until nine months ago, could enter through the front. But, though he is not wanted by the police, he can still expect to be hassled by the police that guard it.

“This place is an ethnic ghetto,” he says.

The Salone camp has found itself on the frontlines of the populist struggle that is sweeping Europe, as Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, and possibly the country’s next prime minister cracks down on the minority group too boost his populist credentials.

The camp is typical of government-run Roma camps in Italy. There are roughly 170,000 people from the ethnic group living in the country though only 40,000 live in purpose-built camps.

Inside, static caravans, many of them dilapidated with broken windows, are separated by narrow concrete walkways. The heat is stifling, there is no breeze and, in an effort to combat the August temperatures, inhabitants have sprayed water onto the hot concrete.

Flies play on the surface of the stagnant water but everything else is still. Residents sit listless, sheltering in the shadows of their caravans alongside broken down appliances salvaged for scrap.

Insects crawl at Zura’s feet but she doesn’t pay them any attention. “There are roaches inside as well,” the 55-year-old says, pointing to the battered red caravan to her right.

Both Samir and Zura describe the situation in the camp as one of extreme poverty. Residents survive from day-to-day selling things like scrap metal and secondhand clothing, or begging. “We know that today we can eat but tomorrow we might not,” Zura says.

As Italy’s populist government has cracked down on migrants, most of them arriving from North Africa, it has also meted out punishment on the remnants of Europe’s last refugee crisis. Zura and Samir, a generation apart, both fled persecution in the former Yugoslavia.

Samir only gained Italian citizenship after he was able to prove his parents were from Serbia, a country which didn’t exist when he was born. Zura is essentially stateless. She arrived in Italy in the 1970s with her family but has no right to citizenship. It is unclear from where in the former eastern European state she originally hails.

The desperate situation the Roma find themselves in is a legacy of decades of mismanagement and discrimination. A prime example is the dilapidated caravans the 400 or so inhabitants of the Salone camp are forced to live in without the means to move to more conventional accommodation. Only designed for five years of continuous habitation, the caravans, provided by the local municipality, are now 15 years old.

Under Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini, the Roma have more to fear than just the poverty to which they have become accustomed. Samir describes how a month ago police came to question inhabitants as part of a census ordered by the government, a precursor to an expected eviction policy. “They arrive at dawn and they knock on the door. They ask for documents, they take pictures, they make a digital record,” he says.

Zura, whose daughters, nieces and nephews come to sit around her as she talks, is one of the individuals in Mr Salvini’s sights as he seeks to evict Roma from illegal camps and expel those without the right to remain.“From one moment to another the police can come to ask to see my permission and I can be expelled,” Zura says.

For the Roma in the Salone camp, the census may hint at something more sinister. Memory of the genocide that killed hundreds of thousands of Roma during the Second World War and the racial laws against the Roma and Jewish communities introduced by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini lives on. Zura’s 96-year-old father, who is still alive, told her the prelude to their perseuction by the Nazis was a mapping scheme. She can’t help draw a comparison with Mr Salvini’s census.

“My father told me they came one day and they mapped everyone and after a few days they were sent to the camps. So this is also what we fear,” Zura says.

Updated: August 15, 2019 02:49 PM

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