Rome, City of Squats, Becomes Battleground Over Homes, Immigration

This former office building in central Rome has been occupied by squatters, most of them immigrants, for several years. Authorities say they will evict everyone in the building in the coming weeks. This is the next abandoned building in central Rome from which police plan to evict squatters. (Photo by CAIN BURDEAU/Courthouse News Service)

ROME, Italy (CN) — For now, Mohammed Kebir, a 51-year-old Moroccan clothes vendor, is sleeping in his car, and working out where he’ll live next. He just got thrown out of his home: an abandoned school building where some 350 people — most of them immigrants — lived.

“I lived there for six, seven years,” Kebir said on a recent hot afternoon in Rome.

In a highly anticipated operation, hundreds of police raided the school on July 15, a Monday, and forced out everyone living there. Authorities called the operation a success and said they would push on to close many more of the city’s squats.

The expulsions are the work of Italy’s hard-line anti-immigrant government, led by far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League party.

“From words to deeds,” Salvini said in a statement. He said he had zero tolerance for the occupazioni, as these squatted buildings in Rome, and across Italy, are called.

He called the occupied buildings a public hazard and said the expulsions were carried out lawfully.

The July 15 expulsion was met with protests. A group of occupants burned mattresses to stop the police and threw stones. Phalanxes of police forced their way in, cutting through fences and breaking down doors. Longtime residents padlocked themselves on the roof of the school and demanded better housing.

A Courthouse News reporter visited the scene a few days after the dramatic mass eviction. Here, far from the glitzy city center and the tourist-packed Roman Coliseum, Salvini’s policies were in action.

The school, on Via Cardinal Domenico Capranica, sits off a ring road of Rome, hidden by trees. The road down to the old school was guarded by local police and was off limits.

Kebir stood with other Moroccans and residents waiting to be let back into their former homes and retrieve belongings left behind.

“I’ve got all the clothes I sell still there,” Kebir said. He sells women’s clothing door to door.

Nearby sat other former residents.

“I was there for 19 years,” said Sara, a 39-year-old Italian woman. She declined to give her last name. She, like other former residents, did not want to be photographed.

“My father died there,” Sara said, visibly upset. She sat on the curb with her 5-year-old daughter and other families.

She said that after the school closed more than 20 years ago it functioned as a homeless shelter and that’s where her father slept. After the shelter closed her father and others occupied the building, she said.

A woman leaves former office building in central Rome that now is home to squatters, many of them immigrants. Authorities say they plan on evicting everyone in the building in the coming weeks. (Photo by CAIN BURDEAU/Courthouse News Service)

On a smartphone, she showed photographs of her home, a converted classroom. Her apartment was clean and modern-looking with a full kitchen and living room.

“This was a political move,” she said. “Salvini wanted to show off. He wanted to show the world that he is in charge.”

Italian prosecutors, under pressure from Salvini, say they are looking at closing down about 40 other occupied buildings in Rome, where thousands of people live.

Rome is a sprawling city littered with abandoned buildings, some built during the infrastructure-crazed Fascist government of Benito Mussolini and many more during a period of rapid expansion as Rome became a major European capital after World War II.

There is a lot of long-neglected and abandoned infrastructure across Rome, which naturally became an opportunity for squatters, who’ve been active across Italy for decades. These occupazioni are common and range from well-run communities to dangerous drug dens.

Kebir said the old school where he lived was one of the better squats, mostly home to immigrants from Eastern Europe and North Africa.

After the raid, the government offered people living in the Cardinal Capranica school new rooms in nearby government-run housing tenements. But Kebir and others complained that the housing offered was repugnant.

“Where they put people there are parasites, cockroaches,” said a 30-year-old Moroccan man who was with Kebir. “They don’t let you cook there. I have a newborn child. How am I supposed to make milk in the middle of the night?”

He took out his smartphone and showed images of the empty apartment his family was offered. The walls and beds crawled with insects.

Kebir blasted Italy’s new anti-foreigner stance.

“It’s all changed,” he said. “It’s not like it was. I remember Italy in the 1990s. It was like Italy (was supposed to be). Now it’s worse than the Third World. They’re treating foreigners like dogs. They’re doing this on purpose. They are doing this to make us go.”

Upon taking office in June 2018, Salvini vowed to deport tens of thousands of immigrants living in Italy without proper documentation.

Salvini’s League was formerly known as the Lega Nord and has its roots in a movement seeking to split off Northern Italy — particularly the heavily industrialized and wealthy northeastern quadrant of Lombardy and Veneto — from the rest of Italy.

The League gained in strength in the 1990s, largely on an anti-immigrant and anti-southern Italian message. It went into government for brief spells with Silvio Berlusconi, the right-wing billionaire media mogul who served as prime minister several times.

But in the past decade the League has overtaken Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which has been worn down by corruption scandals and investigations of criminal conduct by Berlusconi.

In the last national elections in March 2018, the League trounced Forza Italia. Salvini triumphed and became deputy prime minister after making an alliance to govern with an upstart party on the left, the anti-corruption and anti-poverty party known as the 5-Star Movement.

As part of their agreement with the League, the 5-Star Movement has not sought to stop Salvini’s push to expel immigrants and stop immigration.

Since taking office, Salvini has ruthlessly gone after immigrants. He’s closed ports to refugees, closed down welcome centers and waged an ideological war with the rest of Europe over the continent’s policies on mass immigration from impoverished African, Mideastern and Asian countries.

Salvini’s anti-immigrant drive has been widely condemned across Europe and is the subject of fierce legal fighting.

Until Salvini entered office, Italy was the chief port of entry for a flow of people fleeing war and poverty in Africa, the Middle East and parts of the Far East, such as Pakistan.

Italy is relatively close for immigrants and refugees stuck in North Africa. Typically, they try to reach Italian waters by embarking for Lampedusa, a Sicilian island off the coasts of Libya and Tunisia.

But now, after years of immigration, it seems that everywhere one go nowadays in Italy people of all walks of life and political stripes express frustration and anger with the numbers of foreigners.

“This is no longer Naples,” an elderly man complained as he waited for a bus in Naples’ city center. “Every other person who walks by is from another country.”

Versions of this kind of statement are commonly heard around kitchen tables, at cafés and on trains. Attacks on immigrants, many of them vicious physical attacks, are becoming more common.

Traditionally, Italy was one of Europe’s more tolerant countries in regard to foreigners and this openness has made the Italian peninsula a very diverse place where outsiders often are made to feel at home.

But, as immigration grows, many more Italians feel threatened by this booming population of new people.

Italy’s population would be declining if it weren’t for the steady birthrate among foreigners in Italy, according to population surveys.

In this context, it’s easier to understand why Salvini’s push to rein in foreigners has become so popular. Although his message is unpopular among many Italians, even a majority, he’s turned his anti-immigrant message into a political juggernaut.

This became brutally clear in May when the League picked up 33% of the national vote in elections to the European Parliament, the highest percentage of any party.

Exacerbating Italy’s anger over this influx of foreigners are EU rules that have left Italy feeling like it’s been turned into a dumping ground for uncontrolled immigration.

Under EU rules, the country that first hosts an asylum-seeker must also process his or her paperwork and asylum request. In practice, this has left Italy housing, feeding, instructing and processing a disproportionate number of asylum-seekers compared to other European countries such as France and Spain.

This is the next abandoned building in central Rome from which police plan to evict squatters. (Photo by CAIN BURDEAU/Courthouse News Service)

Back under the summer sun in a parking lot in Primavalle, Sara, the distraught mother who’d lost her home of 19 years, sat glumly on the curb.

“If you could see how my home is!” she said, proud of her place: spic and span and comfy. “It makes me cry.”

Where next? For now, she will be living with her daughter’s father and then who knows.

“I can’t afford rent: 1,000 euros a month?”

She said she’s been waiting for eight years for an apartment in a public housing block. She’s still waiting.

“There are lots of empty houses,” she said, nodding at high-rise tenement blocks in that part of Rome.

She again retraced what happened the day she was forced out of her home.

“The army was here! They came as though they were going into war, in helmets and wearing armor!” she said. “They treated us like criminals.”

She and other residents, including children, resisted the expulsion for as long as they could, retreating to the rooftop and padlocking themselves together.

“We defended our place,” she said. “We made a wall of people.”

Before they gave up the fight, she said, they got one demand fulfilled: a meeting with regional officials to talk about finding new better housing.

“We want them to offer us good housing to live in,” she said. “Not those places they offered us with cockroaches. It’s better on the street than living there.”

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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