ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In a shabby encampment on the outskirts of Rome, Selveta Nemeti and her two children have been sleeping outside next to their dismantled trailer.
Nemeti is one of 450 residents of Camping River, an officially-sanctioned encampment for Roma people in the Italian capital, who looked on helplessly when police started to evict families from the camp in late June and then destroyed their homes.
“They woke us up early one morning and told us the trailers were the property of the city and we had to leave,” said Nemeti, 25, who is originally from Kosovo but has lived in Italy since she was three months old.
Also known as gypsies and nomads, tens of thousands of Roma live across Italy, many in squalid shantytowns on the outskirts of major cities and on the fringes of society.
Even though her home was destroyed, Nemeti decided to stay on in the Camping River camp, desperate to find a new place for her family.
The authorities told her she could move to a “casa famiglia”, a foster home-type arrangement usually reserved for unaccompanied minors and elderly or disabled adults, or sleep in the street.
Italian media reported on Thursday that police had arrived to clear the remaining residents from the camp.
The city said the clearance was routine and the land lease had expired. Efforts to get the residents, half of them children, to move elsewhere had yielded no success.
Camping River, established in 2005, is one of the more than 100 official Roma camps in Italy under the oversight of local governments, which exist alongside an unknown number of official ones set up by the Roma themselves.
The residents say the camp - where they have lived in pre-fabricated cabins provided by the municipality - is their home and that the alternatives offered either do not work or would divide families.
“It’s not right that they’re treating us like this. We’re not animals, we’re humans,” Nemeti told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The eviction kicked off just days after Italy’s new interior minister, far-right League party leader Matteo Salvini, said the country’s Roma should be counted and, if foreign, expelled.
Since coming to power in a coalition government on June 1, Salvini, head of the far-right League, has been making waves by turning away humanitarian ships that have picked up migrants from North Africa in the Mediterranean.
But long before migration became a European humanitarian and now political crisis, Salvini was taking aim at the Roma, calling for their camps to be bulldozed because he says they are hotbeds of crime.
Under its “Roma Plan”, Rome has scheduled the clearance of three official camps, with the La Barbuta and Monachina encampments set to follow the closure of Camping River.
City officials say the plan will improve the Roma’s access to education, employment, healthcare and housing.
Monica Rossi, the plan’s architect, said Camping River’s occupants rejected an offer to sign an agreement, which would have provided each family with a monthly stipend of 800 euros ($936) over a two-year period if they found their own property on the private rental market.
Rossi, a senior policy advisor to the city, said extremely vulnerable Roma were also offered accommodation in several of the city’s residential assistance centers.
The city said in a statement this week it was making a wide range of support measures available until September 30 related to housing, work and professional training.
But the plan’s critics say it was formulated without consultation with the Roma community.
“The idea that these families, most of whom are destitute, could find a landlord who would offer them a private rental lease is ridiculous,” said Carlo Stasolla, president of the Roma rights group Associazione 21 Luglio.
Human rights groups say the country’s housing policies have long been used to segregate its Roma community.
In 2015, the Civil Court of Rome ruled the “nomadic camps” in Rome were a form of segregation and discrimination based on ethnic grounds, breaching Italian and European law.
A 2017 report by Amnesty International found that “Roma living in camps are effectively excluded from social housing” in Rome.
“Despite their numerous and repeated applications, only a handful of Romani families were recorded as living in some of the 50,000 social housing properties [in Italy],” the report said.
Many Italians view Roma as pickpockets and thieves, and have welcomed the new coalition government’s hardline stance on the Roma and immigration.
About 82 percent of Italians held unfavorable views on Roma in their country, compared to 45 percent of Britons and 40 percent of Germans, according to a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center.
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Reporting by Elaine Allaby, Editing by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org