Italy clamps down on destitute refugee squatters with eviction notices

Reuters News
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Posted: May 06, 2016 6:48 AM

By Rosie Scammell

ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Metal bars have been installed in the doors of an old newspaper office where scores of squatters - asylum seekers, refugees and a few Italians - fear a confrontation with Rome's riot police.

The bars went up after the occupants of the former La Stampa office found out about City Hall's plan to evict them, as part of a drive by the Italian authorities to crack down on the growing number of people taking residence in disused buildings.

"We'll run to the roof," said one man by a sign calling for a meeting on how his fellow residents should defend themselves.

Across Italy, an estimated 10,000 refugees and asylum seekers are living in makeshift settlements, including shanty towns and tents in the open.

Many are in limbo awaiting a decision on their asylum claim. Others have been granted refugee status but say the state has done little to help them access social services. Some had tried to reach other European cities before returning to Italy.

In all 40 sites have been mapped by medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), including the old offices of La Stampa which is home to 130 people and Turin's former Olympic village which is housing 1,000 people.

In a report on the shortcomings of Italy's asylum system, MSF said it had found an invisible population surviving on the margins of society.

'THROWN OUT LIKE RUBBISH'

Those living in abandoned buildings find their way there through an informal network of refugees, often after being granted refugee status and leaving asylum seeker centers.

In the old La Stampa offices, people live in rooms built with breezeblocks that have made the former newsroom unrecognizable since it was first occupied in October 2013.

A note with "do not touch" scrawled in red ink is taped on to a fuse box, indicating where the residents have wired up their own electricity.

The inhabitants have built their own bathrooms, including some toilet stalls which are padlocked for privacy, and added a few personal touches like potted plants and a "welcome" mat.

But many still struggle with the living conditions.

"It is difficult to tell you how cold it gets," said one Eritrean man, who admits being affected mentally and physically by the precarious situation.

The 37-year-old, who declined to give his name, reached the Italian island of Lampedusa five years ago and says he was given no support after being granted asylum.

"They threw us on the street after they gave us documents, like rubbish," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

His arrival came around the same time Italy began setting up emergency reception facilities in hotels, former schools and monasteries, to host some of the 56,000 people who fled to Italy in 2011 following uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

But these reception centers, which can host roughly 76,000 people, are ill-equipped for refugees, says MSF researcher Giuseppe De Mola.

For example, hoteliers paid by the government to turn their rooms over to asylum seekers are unlikely to also run language courses or give jobs advice for those who given refugee status.

"So after a year people leave and they don't find any instruments for integration. Problems begin here," De Mola said.

GERMANY DOES BETTER?

As Italy struggles to cope with housing and integrating its refugee population, the situation appears markedly different in Germany, Europe's biggest economy.

Last year the government also opened emergency shelters to accommodate around 1 million arrivals, but despite the strain the U.N. refugee agency says the system is working well.

"With the decreasing numbers (in 2016), those emergency shelters are more or less empty and the government is trying to move people to more permanent shelters," Martin Rentsch from UNHCR Germany told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Those who gain refugee status are given the same housing benefits as German citizens and can stay in reception facilities if they are unable to find an apartment.

"They are not forced out. People are not thrown out, they are not thrown into homelessness," Rentsch said.

In Italy there are fears more people could find themselves stranded in the country and living in squats, with 83,000 asylum requests lodged last year out of 150,000 arrivals by boat.

So far this year around 28,000 people have reached Italy by sea, a similar number to the same period in 2015.

The Italian government has already tightened controls on squats, cracking down the unauthorized use of resources which has left half of the settlements without water and electricity.

De Mola said in one squat in Padua, northern Italy, residents are forced to share an outdoor hosepipe to wash.

Getting treated by health workers is difficult.

Just 13 percent of asylum seekers interviewed by MSF said they accessed state medical facilities, with 21 percent helped by charities and the remaining 66 percent having no treatment.

Refugees fared better, with 58 percent of them saying they were treated by the state, while 31 percent said they had no access to healthcare.

Italy's interior ministry did not respond to a request for comment, while Rome's prefecture - in charge of the emergency reception centers - said via email it was not responsible for offering assistance to those living outside the official system.

Rome's City Hall officials declined to comment ahead of elections in June in the capital, which is currently without a mayor and being served by an emergency administration following a scandal, which saw millions of euros in state funds siphoned off from areas including asylum-seeker facilities.

Back in the old La Stampa office, few believe the outcome of the investigation or the mayoral vote will make a difference.

"Here they treat you like animals," said the Eritrean resident. "In other places it's not like this. In other countries they give you a home."

(Reporting by Rosie Scammell. Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)