When in Rome, What Human Rights Are Expected?

October 30, 2013

By John Dalhuisen, Europe Director at Amnesty International

The issue of Roma communities’ access to adequate housing in Rome has, clearly, become an emotive one.

Money is tight for everybody and the pool of available social housing in Rome is already hugely oversubscribed. Italy has a big housing problem and Rome is no different.

We are aware of this.

But there is no escaping – or justifying – the fact that Roma faces additional obstacles when trying to access adequate housing that do not have their origins in brute economic fact, but in something more elemental: prejudice.

A report we have made public today describes how the municipality of Rome has long been running a two-track assisted housing policy that is condemning thousands of Roma to live in poor conditions in segregated camps on the outskirts of the city.

We are not talking about newly arrived or itinerant Roma but of long-established communities, many deep into their third generation living in Italy, who are, for the most part, legally resident in the country, or citizens of it. They are people with the same rights and same needs as anyone else. And though this is rarely heard, they also have the same desires – for a job, for security, for a house, for the opportunity to better themselves. Certainly, some are used to a life in camps and like it. Many, however, do not.

The segregation of Rome’s Roma population has its origins in the circumstances of their arrival from the former Yugoslavia over 40 years ago. It is not surprising that informal settlements ossified and it is easy to see why municipal authorities initially responded by providing basic services to these structures in a way that perpetuated them.

This is understandable. In the course of the last decade, under successive administrations, however, the segregation of Roma in camps moved from being a demographic phenomenon to an actively pursued social policy.

This reached in apogee in the Nomad Plan – as its name did not even bother to hide. This plan, was based on the prejudiced, politically convenient, but fundamentally false assumption that Roma are nomadic – and that a life in camps was the only appropriate form of housing for them, and the only one that the authorities had any kind of obligation to provide.

For years, a complex points system ranking applicants for social housing blocked Roma living in camps from ever being able to access social housing – as they could never demonstrate that they had previously been evicted from private accommodation that they could not afford in the first place.

When the ranking system was changed late last year to prioritize those in temporary assisted accommodation, the municipality of Rome disgracefully and disingenuously issued a circular clarifying that this did not apply to Roma living in camps. They, in short, could stay there for ever.

In a meeting earlier this week, Assessora Cutini, a representative from the Municipality of Rome, indicated that that the Nomad Plan had come to an end – and that the municipality was considering repealing the order excluding Roma in camps from accessing social housing. This would be an important step in the right direction.

We would urge them follow this up with concrete plans to mitigate the segregation and poor living conditions of those living in camps in the short term and develop longer term plans to end the parallel housing system condemning thousands of Roma to a life in camps.

Amnesty International is not calling for Roma living in camps in the Italian capital to be given priority access to the limited stock of social housing in the capital. We are calling for them to have equal access to social housing regardless of their ethnicity. We are calling for policies that will progressively end their segregation in substandard accommodation.

This does not strike us as either controversial or idealistic.