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Europe’s outsiders

Emily Goddard, Alex Sturrock |

Petrica drives his family around Naples on a balmy June evening, searching for a safe spot to park until the morning. This is not a tourists’ jaunt, nor will he, his wife and 18-month-old daughter be leaving the car overnight – the decade-old Vauxhall Astra has been their only shelter for the past two months. Like every night following their forced eviction from Gianturco, an informal Roma settlement in the Italian city, the young family will push flat the seats of their aluminium, fourwheeled home and fill the gaps with clothes and bags to create a small, lumpy bed.

“The baby is often crying at night, which is hard in such a tiny space,” 31- year-old Petrica explains. “When we are all so close it means we cannot sleep easy.”

Since leaving the Gianturco camp, the family has not been able to enjoy a single cooked meal, relying only on cold food for sustenance as they have no access to kitchen facilities, while washing and sanitation is as bad as one can expect from this bleak situation. Each evening, after the father and mother have spent the day begging on the street with their young daughter in tow, they return to their car with just enough money to buy a loaf of bread and clamber in, hoping for some rest before they move to the next spot. They always keep moving on after only a day or two, as they are conscious of the inadequate shield from any trouble the car bestows on them. Petrica says. “We are in different areas of the city every day. We do not feel safe, not at all. What kind of safety can you have in a car?”

He and his family were among 1,300 other people who were evicted – by cruel irony, on the eve of International Roma Day on 7 April – from Gianturco, which had stood on a site for the past six years; the site has now been rendered to rubble.

The eviction followed six months of heavy police presence and threats of immediate removal, meaning many dozens of people fled the camp before the proposed eviction day in fear of what they might face if they stayed. Ultimately, the expulsion took place earlier than the agreed date: before Romarights NGOs and local activists had managed to complete the emergency Rule 39 request for interim measures to the European Court of Human Rights that they had been preparing.

Petrica, in spite of the challenging circumstances, feels his family is one of the more fortunate as many hundreds of others have been deprived of the luxury of any sanctuary at all and are now left destitute. He says. “They are staying and sleeping where they can, in parks and bus stations. These areas are always very dangerous.”

Alex, 13, along with his mother and father, is just one of those facing this perilous situation and sleeping rough after being forced to leave Gianturco. They have made a traffic island opposite Naples Central Train Station their home. From this concrete platform, which they share with many other homeless people, Alex spends his days collecting scrap metal and watching the flow of cars and trucks travelling around the city, trying to piece together what typical daily life must feel like for locals.

Meanwhile, 17-year-old Viorica and her mother fled to Forcella to seek refuge with relatives who were already living there. The mother and daughter now share a two-room home with five other people from an aunt’s family, and understand this situation must only be temporary before things become thorny and they outstay their welcome.

Viorica misses the life she had led there since she was 12. She is now isolated, and many members of her family have become separated – some have lost contact entirely. She remembers the day the local authorities came to evict them. She says,“It was hard to believe that we had to leave that place. After five years, you can imagine. It was a very ugly thing, what they did to us. I got scared a bit, it all felt somehow strange. They told us to get out, because we could not stay there, they said that this was not a place for us. I felt like they meant not just Gianturco, but that this place, Napoli, Italy was not for us.”

Gheorghe, 45, also says the eviction highlighted the disparities between his race and the Italian nationals. He made his way to another informal Roma settlement in a neighbouring area and will stay there for as long as he can under one small roof with his wife, eight-yearold daughter, 19-year-old son, daughter-in-law and 10-month-old grandson. But he is aware that this is no way to live permanently and raise children. “This is not normal,” he admits. “We should be in the same street with the Italians in a neighbourhood, but we are not. We are on the outside. If we had a permanent home we could get our kids to school and we can go to work, the same as everybody else is doing.”

Other families from Gianturco travelled to Romania, where many originally descended from descended decades ago, and a number simply disappeared and become invisible, according to Amnesty International. But a small minority of 140 people was rehabilitated in a state-sponsored, heavily fencedoff and guarded container park in Via del Riposo. Sandwiched between a multi-storey cemetery, six-lane motorway and an airport, this is an ostensibly temporary solution to a long-established social housing crisis. The perimeter brick wall surrounding this emergency housing reveals an even more worrying aspect and exposes the extent of the hostility faced by the estimated 170,000 Roma and Sinti living in Italy.

It is marred with brazenly racist graffiti that threatens Roma people specifically with death and the firebombing of their homes – a warning that would be irresponsible to dismiss, given that this development stands on the site of a previous Roma settlement that was burned down by arsonists in 2013. Notwithstanding, the select few chosen ones living inside this clinical ghetto, with its sterile, flat-pack-style, grey-corrugated metal-walled dwellings, are the envy of those who are left outside.

A formal, pre-authorised appointment was required to gain access to the camp, but once inside it is clear to see that a sense of community is flourishing within the imposingly high fences. Some of the adults also have access to work while many of the children have places in nearby schools. A couple of men suggest speaking to a man called “Capo” – Vincenzo Esposito, a social worker for Roma and Sinti, who has been sent by the local municipality to escort the visit.

Esposito says life in the development is “very peaceful” and there is a waiting list of families still hoping to get a coveted place here. However, these are exclusively Roma people and no other ethnicity in need of housing is asking to be moved to Via del Riposo.

The severance from wider society that the walled community borders create for the residents has attracted stern reproach from human rights organisations. Amnesty launched a public campaign pushing for Italian authorities to urgently initiate a consultation with the Romani families and it has already 15,000 appeals that were sent to the local municipality and the Italian Interior Minister. But Amnesty International is calling on Brussels to take immediate action. “It is time for the European Commission to stop paying lip service to Roma rights and take meaningful action to end the shameful discrimination and segregation against Roma in Italy,” insists Catrinel Motoc, the NGO’s regional campaigner on discrimination.

However, it can’t be ignored that Italy is already grappling at the frontline of some of Europe’s most complex and urgent humanitarian problems. The escalating refugee crisis alone is a considerable challenge, with 181,000 migrants reaching the country from Libya last year, while 21,900 migrants arrived in the first three months of this year – up from 14,500 in the same period in 2016. Italy’s own citizens face hardship amid high unemployment, which currently sits at 11.1 per cent and the highest public debt in the Eurozone after Greece – about 132 per cent of GDP.

And these factors leave a bitter taste in the mouths of Italian locals who have witnessed the formation of the new container park in Via del Riposo. Jordano, who runs a nearby shop and bar, says: “They come in here and they buy coffee, so they are good for business. They don’t cause any problems, things are calm and everyone gets on with his own business.”

“Look,” he continues, “Naples is a poor city with many problems; we have high unemployment, poverty and criminality. If you give these people free accommodation but not others it will create tensions.”The former Gianturco residents make it clear that they are not after handouts from the Italian government; they only want to be able to put down roots in safe spaces where they can raise their families and develop some level of cohesion with the wider community.

Gheorghe, in particular, is anxious that it won’t be long before his family is again forced to up sticks, creating yet more instability and distress. He wants only a more sustainable future for his family. “We can build our own homes; we do not need anyone to do it for us. They pretend they are doing something for everybody, but look where we are. They destroyed our homes and won’t let us settle anywhere. We do not want government containers, just somewhere we can live in peace.”

The Italian authorities did not respond to a request for comment.

The Independent