Italy: Berlusconi's genocidal policies deny the Roma food, health, education, even basic amenities Print E-mail

 Volume 375, Issue 9708, Pages 17 - 18, 2 January 2010
World Report

Plight of Roma worsens in Italy

By Samuel Loewenberg
[Note: This latest report on the worsening plight of the Roma is based on a 2009 report from the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Christian group which runs an outpatient clinic for the Roma in Rome. Scroll down to also read Sant'Egidio's 2008 Press Release condemning the Berlusconi government's orchestration of a "Roma emergency" to justify the fascist fingerprinting of the Roma within Italy's borders some 18 months ago]
The already marginalised Roma population in Italy are facing further threats to their fragile health status under Silvio Berlusconi's government.

One would not think to search for hungry children in Rome. In fact there are hundreds, according to a new report that looks at the health conditions of the gypsy, or Roma, population in the capital of Italy. An estimated 24% of Roma children are malnourished and 25% are born underweight, according to a new study by the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Christian group which runs an outpatient clinic for Roma. The population of Roma in the city is officially estimated at about 8000, although advocacy groups say the real number could be almost twice that much. At least half are younger than 18 years.

20% of children had bronchitis or pneumonia, 16% had dermatological infections, including scabies, 13% had diarrhoea or other gastrointestinal problems, and 5% had underdeveloped motor skills or another disability. The epidemiological reasons underlying these problems are “poor and unclean living situations, social isolation, and widespread dietary instability”, the report concluded.

The condition of the Roma is worse than not only the general Italian population but also other immigrant populations in Italy, said Ersilia Buonomo, a public health specialist who teaches at the University of Rome Tor Vergata. She works in a clinic for Roma and helped prepare the Sant'Egidio report.

Most of the nation's 150 000 Roma live in so-called camps, which are really shanty towns that lack such basics as electricity, water, or sanitation. The most infamous of these in Rome is called Casolino 900. It is the largest of about 100 camps around the city, with a population of about 800 people. At the entrance is a large sign proclaiming “We are all children of the same Father.” But there are few Romans who live in the conditions found here. The camp is next to a junkyard along the side of a major thoroughfare. It resembles the infamous favelas of Brazil, with makeshift shacks and trailers clustered on muddy hillsides, surrounded by piles of copper wire and pipe which the Roma collect to sell at the scrapyard. Outhouses are scattered throughout the settlement, since there is no sewage here. Concrete faucets were installed several months ago by authorities, but there is no electricity.

Donica Saiti, a wizened yet vibrant grandmother in her mid-50s, is visibly outraged when asked about her living conditions in the camp, where she has lived since fleeing Kosovo in 1989. “Dogs, pigs don't live like this. We are without electricity in the centre of Rome!”

Her grandchildren all have different medical conditions­intestinal problems, bronchial infections, and asthma­but cannot see a doctor regularly. “There is no doctor, nothing. We go to the emergency room.” The child with asthma was given a respirator, but there is nowhere to plug it in, she said.

Many of the more recent immigrants from Romania came to Italy seeking a better life, said Buonomo, but most do not find it. “Their health and their nutritional condition become worse in Italy”, said Buonomo. Their hard lives mean that life expectancies are very low, she said. “The Italian camps are terrible for them. They are really slums, with all of the social and health consequences” of those conditions, said Paolo Ciani, the Roma coordinator for the Community of Sant'Egidio. Prejudice against the Roma is such that it is very difficult for them to find normal housing. The Roma do have many real problems, said Ciani, but isolating them is not the solution. “It is not a cultural and racial problem, it's a social problem because they are excluded from the society.”

Although the Roma have a long history in Italy, the most recent arrivals from Romania, have stirred up old stereotypes and sometimes violent reactions. The original immigrants, known as the Sinti, came during the 16th century, and today make up about half of the total 150 000 estimated population in the country. The newer Roma immigrants are divided mostly between those who fled the former Yugoslavia during the war in the 1990s, many of whom have no documents and are effectively stateless. The past few years have seen many new arrivals from Romania. It is these recent immigrants who have ignited much of the recent controversy, particularly after some Romanians were accused of killing an Italian woman in 2007. The media and politicians from both parties jumped on the Roma issue, igniting fears in the public of murderers, thieves, and beggars. Although illegal Roma settlements had largely been tolerated in the past, the Romanian immigrants, who often had large families and were more visible than previous groups of Roma, ignited massive public hostility, according to a report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe in 2008.

Most Roma families in the Casolino 900 camp have little or no access to health care (Samuel Loewenberg)

The Casolino 900 camp in Rome houses around 800 Roma and lacks basic facilities (Samuel Loewenberg)

Beggars and petty thefts are nothing new, but after the 2007 murder, politicians and much of the media became nearly hysterical about the Roma, said Ciani, calling the reaction unjustified and out of proportion. “Italy is the land of the mafia. We have real problems of security here, but instead they are focused on gypsies”, he said.

Things have become much worse for the Roma under the new Berlusconi regime. In 2008, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's rightwing Forza Italia party formed a coalition with the anti-immigrant Northern League and the rightwing National Alliance, a successor to the Fascists. The leadership of the Ministry of the Interior went to the Northern League's Roberto Maroni, who announced in May, 2007, that “All Romani camps will have to be dismantled right away, and the inhabitants will be either expelled or incarcerated.” 2 days later, a mob of 60 people firebombed a Romani camp near Naples. Nobody has been prosecuted. Maroni said “that is what happens when gypsies steal babies”. Uberto Bossi, head of the National Alliance, told a reporter, “people do what the state can't manage”.

Recent years have seen at least eight attacks against Roma communities, with some of their camps being burned to the ground by Molotov cocktails.

The Italian Government did not respond to several interview requests from The Lancet.

Soon after the new government was formed in spring, 2008, it declared a “state of emergency” regarding the Roma encampments, which gave special powers to local authorities, who have been demolishing the informal settlements and moving the Roma to officially sanctioned camps. These prefabricated trailer home parks do have electricity, water, and indoor toilets, but that is about it. They are isolated, rudimentary, and decaying. A government camp visited by The Lancet is a 45-min drive from town, and there are no nearby metro stations. The camp is off a side road, ringed by a high fence, essentially a giant parking lot for dozens of trailer homes several metres apart. It houses families from all over the Balkans­Romania, Montenegro, Serbia, and Kosovo. Cameras are placed along the tops of the fences, and armed guards are at the entrance and occasionally patrol the area like jailers in a prison yard.

“It is bad being here. It is hard to find employment…We are closed in here. People know you are Roma and it is difficult to find a job­they know you are from this camp”, said one 19-year-old inhabitant.

Several of the Roma compare their government housing to a concentration camp. Although the Roma are free to leave, they need special identity cards to enter the camp. But many of the Roma interviewed also said they do not mind the guards, since they are fearful of being attacked by mobs.

Natasha Ferlovic, a 28-year-old mother of six from Serbia, is aghast at the conditions in the government camp. “It is too small, too crowded”, she says of the trailer to accommodate her family of six. All of them are piled on two beds and her infant sleeps sprawled on a couch. Her family has only been in the camp a week, where they were relocated after the police destroyed their home.

Living stateless and undocumented, many of the Roma are effectively cut off from Italian society, with little opportunity for legitimate work, health care, or normal housing. According to Ciani, the Italians created the current camps with the idea that all Roma are nomads, and so would not mind living in the makeshift quarters. In fact, many, especially those from the former Yugoslavia, previously lived in houses.

Roma often do not trust the government-run hospitals, and many of their children do not have basic vaccinations, such as for measles, said Buonomo. Many children often have kidney and urinary tract problems, which go untreated, she said. Winter is an especially dangerous time, because the rickety shelters are often not heated. Last year a 6-month-old Roma child died of pneumonia.

Najo Adzovic, a community leader, said that their exclusion from Italian society is going to perpetuate their situation. The Roma need access to job training and subsidised housing, he said, or else “the sons of our sons will stay in the same situation”.

One of the most positive interventions for improving the Romas' health is through school, said Buonomo. The children often arrive at school hungry, and it is there they receive good meals. “School is a kind of hope for them, because when they come back home, they don't have hope.”
 July 3 2008

Press Release

Italy assailed over plan to fingerprint Gypsies

ROME: The Italian government's plans to fingerprint Gypsies living in camps, including children, drew fresh criticism Thursday when a Catholic human rights organization warned that identifying people according to ethnicity would set a dangerous precedent.

"We are very worried about discrimination according to race or religion," said Marco Impagliazzo, president of the organization, the Community of Sant'Egidio, which is based in Rome. "It evokes painful memories, like the Vichy regime."

As part of a broader crackdown on crime, the conservative government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has pledged to take a census of all Roma and Sinti people, as they prefer to be known, who are living in some 700 camps in Italy. The census, which has a mid-October deadline, also identifies individuals' religion and ethnic group.

Evoking a "Roma emergency" in large cities like Milan, Rome and Naples, the government has also said it plans to shut down unauthorized camps by May 2009 and repatriate people who are in Italy illegally.

On Wednesday, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni told Parliament that the idea behind the census was to "put an end to illegal camps and guarantee security to Italian citizens, but above all to the minors who live in these camps." In many cases, he said, people are living in "sub-human conditions, where children are forced to live with rats."

About half of the estimated 160,000 Roma and Sinti people living in Italy are Italian citizens, another 20 percent are citizens of other European Union countries, while the remainder come from the countries that once made up Yugoslavia.

"There is no national emergency," a spokesman for the organization, Mario Marazziti, said. "What is an emergency is that in the 21st century the life expectancy of a gypsy living in Italy is under 60 years of age."

Rather than take a census, he said, the government would do better to "come up with something to improve their lives."

The government has defended its stance, saying that it has been acting within the boundaries of existing Italian law and EU directives.

The European Commission, the EU executive body, issued a report this week on the discrimination and social exclusion of the Roma. It said that their life expectancy was 10 to 15 years lower than that of other Europeans.

On Monday, the European Parliament is scheduled to discuss the Italian census proposal.