The invisible Roma

By Elisa De Pieri, Amnesty International’s Italy researcher

On the outskirts of Rome a former campsite is now home to some 120 Romanian and Bosnian Roma. Despite the meagre facilities the residents have been there for many years.

This is La Cesarina – an authorized settlement dotted with dilapidated camper vans. Amnesty International was there and in other camps to check with the inhabitants if anything had changed in their lives since the launch of the misconceived ‘Nomad Plan’ by Rome’s mayor in 2009.

Three years ago, Amnesty International criticized the Nomad Plan branding it “the wrong answer”. The ‘Plan’ failed to consult adequately with the Roma and offered accommodation in camps as only possible housing for them. The plan  was also based on the false assumption that Roma are nomadic and do not want traditional houses as homes.

In La Cesarina, a woman invited me into her small van and then apologized because she had no coffee to offer. She seemed touched by our visit. She explained how they have no fridges – difficult if they have medicine to keep cool – and that they cook in the open to keep the smell of food out of the van.

An  elderly Romani man told us what it is like to live in the camp. He smiled gently: “Here we have invisibility. It’s good to be invisible. We are safe.”

We ask where the toilets and showers are. “Do you really want to see them?” some girls ask. There are eight toilets and eight showers. But we are told that only four showers work – and the hot water supply is sporadic. When it is available – three days a week for three hours – it isn’t sufficient for all those who need it.

The toilets are poorly lit, the smell is unbearable and everything is in extreme disrepair. “Two doors are missing,” some women say, “how can we go to the toilet without shutting the door?” The electricity supply is also a problem, as it is needed not just for cooking but also for warming water to wash children and clothes and for aerosol devices to help the breathing of people suffering from respiratory diseases.

Earlier the same day we’d visited Tor de Cenci, where around 400 people live in old containers and barracks. The camp looked extremely run down – big pot-holes along the paths, large areas covered by rubbish.  The electricity had been off for two days.

We met a young mother of five who was breastfeeding her baby. Her older children were drawing on a makeshift table outside her barrack, standing, as there were no chairs. We asked why the children were not at school?

She said: “They cannot go without electricity. We cannot wash them. They get so dirty here. If they go to school like this, they’re told that gypsies smell, and don’t want to go anymore. They lose confidence.”

A grandmother had been up all night with a newborn – without electricity she was unable to prepare his bottle and he was too hungry to sleep.

The first question everybody asked us in Tor de Cenci was: “Are they closing the camp? Where are they sending us?”

This community has been at risk of eviction for more than two years. Most of the people do not want to move. Local NGOs tell us that provision of basic services and social assistance have been significantly reduced and families live day-by-day in squalor and poverty.

There were different faces telling similar stories in other camps.

In Salone, those resettled after the eviction of the Casilino 900 camp told us how cheated they feel. They were promised houses and that they would only have to stay in Salone temporarily.

Three years on they are still there, in a camp built for 600 and currently hosting nearer a thousand. The infrastructure’s deteriorating and there’s no indication what the future will hold.

Roma living in the hundreds of informal settlements in and around Rome are even more vulnerable. Forced evictions continue, with no respect for international standards. Those evicted are then exposed to more violations and abuses.

As we walked around the camps and talked to the inhabitants, the authorities’ promises about better housing and greater social inclusion seemed a long way away.

As we left La Cesarina the man who said being invisible was good for Roma told me: “You see, every time somebody comes here, our hearts start racing and we suddenly hope something will happen.”

Amnesty International will continue to work to make sure the Roma are not afraid of being seen and to shine a light on the violations of their rights.