In Italy today, politicians have become the lead architects of a low-cost human-warehousing system designed to contain the minority Roma, or Gypsy, community. Visitors to the city remark that the visibility of the Roma — especially around train stations, restaurants and tourist sites — is lower than in past decades. What they do not realize is that this superficial change reflects a series of political actions which have profoundly reshaped the Roma’s status within the Italian state.
For years, and most notably with the closure in February of the Casilino 900 enclave, Italian authorities have pushed the Roma out of squatter settlements that were unofficially tolerated and into sanctioned housing developments, where fences, gates, guards, flood lights and surveillance cameras box in and monitor the residents. Legislation passed in 1985 enabled the provincial government to build special camps in undesirable areas on the periphery of the capital. This ordinance, together with special police powers granted in 2007, and the subsequent declaration of a regional state of emergency, allowed municipal authorities in Rome to create and subsidize a separate zone — a separate reality — for the Roma. Operating through this loophole, politicians delivered on their increasingly xenophobic campaign platforms and at the same time evaded the constraints of human rights covenants established by the European Union. Other EU nations followed suit. This summer’s Roma eviction campaign in France prompted Italian Foreign Minister Roberto Maroni to complain that the French were “doing nothing more than copying Italy.”
Today Italian provincial governments — particularly in Rome, Milan and Naples — are busily creating and expanding camps for the nation’s most reviled and historically mistreated minority. The result is deepening hardship; of the approximately 140,000 Roma in Italy, including 7,400 in Rome, 35 percent are settled in enclaves built or tolerated by the government, 15 percent are itinerant, 75 percent are illiterate, and fewer than 3 percent will live beyond 60 years — fully twenty years behind Italy’s national average. 1
The nine authorized Roma enclaves of Rome are bleak places. Water and sewage are inadequate, housing is crowded and uncomfortable, proximity to neighbors is tight and inflexible (and does not take into account the affinities and antipathies among Roma groups of different national origins). The only places for children to play are the concrete slabs between the boxy housing containers. Inoffensive when new, the containers are quickly degraded by high occupancy and insufficient maintenance. Manufactured and marketed as temporary housing for disaster relief and humanitarian emergencies, the units have thin walls with little insulation, and in Rome they have been adopted as a permanent response to the “Emergenza Nomadi.” This is in part because some Italians believe the Roma prefer lightweight dwellings, a notion woven into the nomadic mythology that surrounds them, and in part because the Roma are deemed unworthy of the housing options available to others.
The deplorable outcome is that Italy now has a publicly subsidized network in which vastly inferior living standards are systematically maintained. Medical studies have tracked the disproportionate incidence of respiratory disease and diarrhea among Roma children. Criminological studies have shown Roma incarceration rates in Italian prisons far out of alignment with the demographic profile. Simple spatial analyses of living conditions within the authorized enclaves, which I carried out with others in 2009 and 2010, have assessed the average living space per resident at a mere 41 percent of the minimum allocation specified by the Roman building code, with interior ceilings 14 percent lower than allowable minimums. Discrepancies with housing criteria in the EU’s International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (to which Italy is a signatory) are even wider.
It is revealing to consider these enclaves alongside historic ethnic ghettos, penal colonies and internment camps. Not surprisingly, municipal authorities in Rome would reject these comparisons. From their viewpoint, the authorized enclaves are generous and progressive, a humanitarian gesture supporting a mode of living superior to the squalor of the unauthorized camps and preferable to no housing at all, which is what some Romans believe the Roma deserve. But photos of the material living conditions tell a different story. Five hundred years after the Jewish ghetto of Venice, the ethnic enclave system in Europe has a new heir. By institutionalizing within their democratic social framework a permanent double standard, Italian authorities have thrown down a gauntlet to be taken up by the European Union in defense of adequate housing for all.