Local authorities in Rome have cleared a Roma camp just weeks after Italy’s far-right interior minister sparked widespread criticism for anti-Romani comments.
On Friday, authorities swept the camp and flattened the makeshift homes, which provided residence for an estimated 450 people, around half of them children.
Authorities said the clearance was routine, according to Reuters news agency.
“While I was sleeping with my children and my wife this morning, the police knocked at my door. They woke me up, to get us out of the container that belongs to the city,” Zarko Hadzovic, a 44-year-old resident, told Reuters.
“They offered me a shelter to go to, without my wife and without my children. I said I do not accept it.”
Earlier this month, Matteo Salvini, the country’s new far-right interior minister and co-deputy prime minister, called for a census to register Roma and the expulsion of those who do not carry Italian citizenship.
“Irregular [undocumented] foreigners will be deported via agreements with other countries, but Italian Roma unfortunately you have to keep at home,” Salvini, who heads the far-right League (also known as Northern League) party, told Italian television at the time.
Salvini also called for camps to be “bulldozed” and accused Roma communities of fostering crime, according to the English-language Local news site.
Salvini later downplayed his comments, arguing that the census proposal intends to examine how European funds were being used and investigate life in the camps.
Yet, in a subsequent Twitter post, the far-right minister claimed his comments were met with double standards. Claiming that a left-wing proposal to register Roma would not be criticised, he wrote: “If I propose it, it’s racism.”
"Censimento" dei Rom e controllo dei soldi pubblici spesi. Se lo propone la sinistra va bene, se lo propongo io è RAZZISMO. Io non mollo e vado dritto!
Prima gli italiani e la loro sicurezza. https://t.co/4tq6zADpv2
— Matteo Salvini (@matteosalvinimi) June 19, 2018
The comments prompted backlash from activists and rights groups.
Jonathan Lee, a communications officer at the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), said Friday’s evictions “only made it to the spotlight because of Salvini’s recent comments”.
Explaining that Italian authorities have been “evicting Roma for several years”, he told Al Jazeera: “If this is something that will be a prelude to increased evictions, we’ll be looking at that.”
‘Steady level of racist speech’
According to Lee, “these events do not happen in a bubble, there has been a steady level of racist speech and violence against Roma in Italy for a number of years.”
Estimates put the number of Roma in Italy between 130,000 and 170,000, with around half of them holding Italian citizenship.
In Italy, 148 official camps are under the administration of local governments, while several informal camps are spread throughout the country.
Since coming to office, Salvini has caused several controversies. He turned away ships carrying refugees and migrants and called for an uptick in deportations.
In an open letter sent to Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi last week, dozens of rights monitors, civil society groups and academics decried the city’s plans to evict Roma communities, which they say “trample on human rights”.
According to the ERRC, many Roma live in ethnically-segregated camps on the outskirts of cities and towns across the country and lack access to basic municipal services.
In 2008, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi declared a “Nomad Emergency” in Italy, expanding the capacity of local authorities to carry out evictions and monitor Roma in camps.