Italian Cities Plan to Shut Roma Camps
By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO
MILAN — Some 20 years ago, Marco Deragna, a Roma whose family has been in Italy for generations, moved to a field on the outskirts of metropolitan Milan and made his home there.
Today, his prefab house on wheels — painted bright yellow with dark green shutters — is part of a sizable nucleus of mostly well-kept dwellings that house about 120 Roma, along with their horses, dogs, chickens, turkeys and even peacocks. But the camp’s days are numbered.
The Milan government plans to shut several of the city’s 12 authorized camps. The settlement where Mr. Deragna lives is set to become a transitory encampment for evicted Roma, with a maximum stay of three years.
Mr. Deragna says that he and the other families who have lived there for nearly two decades were not given many viable alternatives after being told they would have to leave. “These homes are the fruit of years of work here, and now the city wants to send us away without offering a solution,” Mr. Deragna said. “We have nothing. Where will we go?”
The treatment of the Roma, also known as Gypsies, became a major issue this summer in France, where the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy has expelled hundreds of people. But the conflict has prompted a similar, if more subdued, debate in Italy. Some critics even say Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government has led the way on this issue in the European Union.
“Sarkozy is merely following the Berlusconi model,” said Pietro Massarotto, the president of Naga, a Milanese organization that provides assistance to immigrants and Roma. “The Italian government invented expulsions of E.U. citizens, in the case they can’t demonstrate they are making a living.”
In dozens of Italian cities, local administrations have been pursuing similar policies to deal with Italy’s Roma and the Sinti, another Romany population that has settled throughout Italy (they number from 150,000 to 300,000, though official statistics do not exist). The local governments have been dismantling authorized camps, while bulldozing unauthorized camps and evicting residents.
When municipally authorized camps are built, they are often on the outskirts of a city, segregated from the rest of the population. Living conditions in all camps — legal and not — are not always adequate, critics say.
“There’s a willful misunderstanding about the Roma being nomadic,” Mr. Massarotto said. He said this had allowed governments to bypass the question of integration, a process that would include giving Roma permanent residences and access to schools. “They are forced to be nomadic,” he said, and that leads to “progressive impoverishment.”
Temporary camps are a hazard. Last week in Rome, a 3-year-old Roma boy was burned to death when a fire broke out in the hut he was living in with his family in an illegal camp near Fiumicino Airport. Afterward, the mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, said the city would begin dismantling 200 illegal camps this month.
Public debate on the issue often has racist and xenophobic overtones.
“There has been growing rancor against Roma and Sinti, in part because the media has hyped this issue, and in part because the government uses it as a means of gaining consensus,” according to Lorenzo Monasta, the president of Osservazione, a research center in Trieste that monitors discrimination against Roma and Sinti.
The critics say recent federal laws have also made life more difficult for Roma and Sinti here, even though more than half are Italian or European Union citizens. In 2007, the government passed a decree allowing European Union citizens to be expelled after three months if they lacked the means to support themselves. Then in 2008 a decree granted the authorities new powers to expel European Union citizens for reasons of public safety.
Critics say these decrees prompted a sharp increase in the identification and tracking of Roma, as well as raids on camps, forced evictions and expulsions. The actual number of expulsions is thought to remain fairly low, however.
The interior minister, Roberto Maroni, said last week that France and Italy had taken similar approaches to the Roma issue. “Italy’s integration policies are the best system in Europe,” he said. “We aren’t xenophobic, but serious people who want laws to be respected.”
Italy has made few efforts to integrate the Roma into Italian society. The focus is instead on security.
“To close camps as they are today is a categorical imperative because of the conditions of squalor and violence there, which is the first impediment to integration and legality,” said Mariolina Moioli, who directs Milan’s office of family, schools and social policies. Her office has been working to find alternatives to the camps, including financially assisting Roma who decide to return to Romania.
But in Italy, xenophobic sentiments are often hurdles to finding work and housing, groups that help Roma say.
Mr. Deragna, at the soon-to-close Milanese camp, has more practical concerns: “If I am sent to another small town, I know people will look at me badly.”Category: treatment of Roma and Sinti