Rome's slum dwellers demand proper homes

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Around 5,000 people live in government-run camps in Rome. Photo: Rosie Scammell
09:24 CEST+02:00
Amid the wealth of Rome, 5,000 people, many of them Italians, are forced to live in rat-infested slums, denied proper social housing by the state. Rosie Scammell visits the Roma camps of Italy's capital.

Under the hot Rome summer sun, two babies lie giggling in a pram as their big brother entertains them from above. A couple of metres away, a dark-haired rat scurries under their crumbling home.

This is not the Rome that tourists come to see. Nor is it the capital that for centuries has inspired artists, swept up in the romantic light which bathes the eternal city.

But this is the reality that thousands of people in the Italian capital are born into, left with little opportunity to go beyond the borders of their government-built slum.

The babies playing on this sunny afternoon will grow up alongside rodents, solely because they have been labelled as part of the Roma community.

“They’re not homes, they’re containers,” says a 24-year-old Italian, who goes by the name of Elvis.

“They’re extremely cold in the winter and extremely hot in the summer. We’re attached one next to the other with three or four metres in between. There’s no privacy,” he tells The Local while sitting next to his neighbour’s home, with the sound of children playing reverberating through the thin wall.

Elvis has lived in the Salone camp for four years; he was moved here after the closure of Rome’s Casilino camp, where he had lived for the first 20 years of his life.

He describes the situation as “difficult”, as another rat runs past.

Situated outside of Rome’s ring road, in a wasteland with no other residential buildings in site, the nearest bus stop to Salone is three kilometres away. There is a station nearby where a train is meant to stop every hour, from Monday to Friday, but residents say it often doesn’t.

This camp is the rule rather than the exception. The eight camps and three shelters run by the government, housing around 5,000 people, are an average of two kilometres from public transport.

Associazione 21 luglio, a Roma rights organization, has visited such camps across Italy and says none meet international standards. Government-run camps do, however, meet the UN’s definition of “slum households”, the organization says.

“I think the institutions are worsening our situation...They’re throwing money away for nothing, making people live like this,” says Elvis.

According to a report released last month by 21 luglio, the Roma community policy cost the city €24.1 million last year. Salone, which houses 900 people, had running costs amounting to €2.9 million.

City hall intends to continue running the Roma camps, with plans underway to reopen a site which had been closed. Councillor Rita Cutini, who works on the policy, declined an interview when contacted by The Local.

Organizations including luglio 21 and Amnesty International argue that the state’s plan is based on the outdated misconception that Roma and Sinti communities are nomadic. They want the policy of segregation scrapped and camp dwellers given access to social housing, a demand backed by residents.

Sitting in a worn chair after serving coffee, one woman tells The Local “the situation is getting worse”.

Unable to sleep, she says she is too old to use public transport to pick up her medicines and fears for her health. “We’re equal - like all Italians, we’re humans - we’re not animals but we live with animals,” she says, looking more elderly than her 63 years.

Not wanting to give her name, she says she moved to Italy from what was then Yugoslavia in 1975. She worked in a market and got on well with the locals, although more recently recalls insults such as “dirty gypsy”.

Prejudice is a daily reality for the Roma community. Earlier this year a “no gypsies” sign went up in the window of a Rome bakery, while the “all Roma are thieves” slur is frequently heard in the Italian capital.

READ MORE: Rome's 'No gypsies' sign sparks furore

In response, Elvis says he would tell his fellow citizens: "All Italians are part of the mafia.”

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“This also isn’t right. Because a person can’t be blamed for something another person has done…We can’t judge everyone in a certain way, without knowing them,” he says, despair creeping over his face.

Many of the people living in camps want to work, he says, but face barriers when applying for jobs.

Twenty-two-year-old Nedzad is one of those people, who tells The Local he searches online for opportunities. He recently found a job in a call centre, but ran into problems when he wrote his address on the contract.

“They said they needed to redo the contract, then they never got back to me,” he says.

Nedzad faces the extra hurdle of being born in Italy but, on turning 18, being denied Italian citizenship. “My parents are from Bosnia and I have permission to stay 'for humanitarian reasons’, like a political refugee. This makes me laugh,” he says.

SEE ALSO: The filmmaker fight to change Italy’s citizenship law

Both he and Elvis have little faith that the situation will change. “The years pass and it stays like this,” says Elvis.

“I hope in the future to have the opportunity to find work and have a home, a normal life like other people,” he says. “There are a lot of people who want to work, who want to integrate, but the state forces us to live like this.” 

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