Italy under pressure over Roma camps squalor

As beetles scurry across the cracked and worn floor in the "Best House Rom", it is not hard to see why Italy has got into trouble with the EU over its treatment of ethnic Roma.

Italy under pressure over Roma camps squalor
In "Best House Rom", families live up to eight to a room and children are plagued by sleep disorders and diseases. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

In the windowless centre on the outskirts of Rome that is a temporary home to some 300 people, families live up to eight to a room and children are plagued by sleep disorders and diseases Europe thought it had consigned to history.

The converted warehouse is one of dozens of squalid and overcrowded camps around the capital which local authorities use to house a mixture of Italian-born Roma, recent migrants from eastern Europe and Sinti, a traditionally itinerant ethnic group which has been present in Italy for centuries.

"There's no air, the children suffer from respiratory disorders and anxiety," said Sherazada Hokic from Bosnia, who lives with seven of her nine children in one room and survives on food handouts she says often include rotting fruit.

The European Commission has warned Italy it may launch infringement procedures, expressing concern the camps "seriously limit fundamental rights" according to extracts of a letter published last week by pro-Roma group Associazione 21 luglio.

READ MORE: Italy faces EU rap over Roma treatment

A report by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) in March found children raised in these camps – often under guard or video surveillance – "are prone to a number of severe and debilitating conditions" including "anxiety disorders, phobias and sleep disorders" as well as "poverty diseases" such as tuberculosis, scabies and lice.

It also warned of daily discrimination and violence against Roma in "an ever-growing climate of racism", including repeated cases of local residents attacking camps with Molotov cocktails while police turn a blind eye.

Although over half the 170,000 or so Roma and Sinti people in Italy are Italian citizens with regular jobs and houses, hate crimes against the poorest strata are rife, fuelled by inflammatory comments by politicians on both the left and right quick to paint Roma as crooks.

The inordinate wealth of the "Casamonica" Roma and Sinti clan – the most powerful organiZed crime group in the region around Rome according to Italy's anti-mafia police – feeds mistrust and resentment.

Camp dwellers are prevented by council regulations from applying for public housing even if they were born in Italy, trapping them permanently in fenced-off centres far from schools, shops, health care centres or workplaces.

It is this isolation of a community essentially on ethnic grounds that is the primary concern of officials in Brussels.

"The conditions are worse than in prison. There's a total lack of human rights, we cannot allow people to be treated like beasts," Senator Manuela Serra of the Five Star Movement (M5S) told AFP during a visit to the Best House centre.

One ghetto to another

The 300 or so residents have just 2.5 metres square each of space at their disposition. Fluorescent strip lights flicker overhead, ceiling tiles are missing and there are holes in the graffiti-daubed walls, yet Rome city council pours funds into the centre, forking out over €1 million in 2013, according to 21 luglio.

In total, some €45 million of taxpayers' money are spent a year on the camps and Serra, a member of the Senate's human rights commission, called for an investigation into "where these enormous sums are really going".

The money is given, without tender, to 35 public and private associations who run the camps and offer sporadic services such as limited rubbish collection or school runs. Critics say corruption is inevitable and there suspicions of mafia involvement.

Many of the families at the Best House were moved there from the Cesarina camp, which was demolished at the end of last year, at which point asbestos was discovered underneath.

Despite the government's admission in February 2012 that the camps were fermenting social exclusion and should be discontinued, a new one known as the Barbuta "solidarity village" was opened in July 2012 on the outskirts of Rome.

The council is now in talks with French-owned multinational Leroy Merlin for a lease on the land, which could see the two-year old camp demolished to make way for a superstore – with yet another, replacement camp built nearby.

"It's a vicious circle, with huge sums wasted at the cost of women, men and children who are moved from one ethnic ghetto to another, with little chance of bettering their lives," said Carlo Stasolla, 21 luglio's head.

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