Mobile phones lie idle, drawers dangle from chests and documents scatter the rooms. On the walls hang photos of weddings and children, all left behind in the rush to leave when the police stormed in.
Six months ago the former office block in Via Curtatone, overlooking Piazza Indipendenza in central Rome, became a flashpoint of Italy’s migrant crisis when police evicted the 800 Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees who had been living there for four years.
We can’t afford new arrivals
“They told us to go with them in buses because they would provide a solution for us,” says Bereket Arefe, an Eritrean refugee who has lived in Italy since 2005. “But when we arrived at the police station, they said: ‘The building is evicted, our job is done.’ I asked: ‘And where do we go now?” and they said: ‘Go on the street or book a room in a hotel.’
“There was no plan B for us.”
The building was one of 100 disused structures in Rome inhabited by migrants, often without heat, water or electricity.
There are just over 180,000 asylum seekers and refugees in Italy, its stated maximum capacity, with most in or near Rome. Many are housed in emergency accommodation, with around 10,000 living in inhumane conditions, according to a new report by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
At the end of the asylum process, many migrants find themselves homeless, and congregate in informal, illegal settlements in abandoned factories, derelict office blocks and car parks. When those are evacuated by police, people form new ones, further out of sight.
Last summer authorities in Rome stepped up their efforts to remove squatters, conducting three major evictions. The mayor, Virginia Raggi, is the highest-profile elected official of the populist Five Star Movement, which is attempting to position itself as tough on migrants and Italy’s party of order.
In June she requested “a moratorium on new arrivals” in the capital in response to the “strong migratory presence and the continuous flow of foreign citizens”. “We can’t afford new arrivals,” she insisted, echoing the hardline anti-migrant rhetoric of the interior minister Marco Minniti.
The evacuation of the Via Curtatone building was one of the most high-profile.
“The police arrived at 5.30am, while everyone was asleep and unprepared,” says Eferm Ali, an Eritrean former occupant. “We took what we could carry and got in the buses to the police station, while the police broke every door, the windows and the toilets. Everything was destroyed.”
With nowhere else to go, most people slept in the Piazza Indipendenza outside the squat. Five days later, riot police arrived to disperse them with water cannon and batons.
Amateur footage shows one woman held by the neck by police, another beaten, and people being targeted with water cannon from one direction and clubbed from behind. MSF said it treated 13 people for injuries at the scene.
“The violence was very, very harsh. I could not believe there could be such disorder in Europe,” recalls Ali. “It was inhumane.”
Meanwhile, ahead of the Italian elections in March, the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has pledged to deport 600,000 of Italy’s 630,000 migrants – leading Rula Jebreal, a high-profile television news anchor, to argue that Italy is being driven into the arms of fascists.
In this political climate, Rome’s migrants have few options. Those squatting in the city’s empty buildings cannot request residence permits, undermining their right to stay and access to public services.
We do not like to occupy buildings and live illegally but it’s better than living on the street,
Baobab Experience, an informal migrant camp, was set up in a car park near Tiburtina station by activists and volunteers in 2015 to provide a temporary solution. In the past two years, it has been cleared 20 times.
Many of the people who live there are recently arrived migrants from north Africa who have not been assigned a reception centre and have received no linguistic or legal support. Increasingly some have been returned to Italy under the Dublin Regulation, which allows European Union member states to return people to the country where they were first registered; others have been in Rome for years and drift between camps when squats are evicted.
“Even for those who have obtained the residence permit, there is no social inclusion, so they find themselves without a home or work,” says Roberto Viviani, an organiser at the camp. “These are the same migrants who are forced to occupy abandoned buildings, like Piazza Indipendenza, to have a roof over their heads.”
Another 1,000 people live in Palazzo Selam, the “palace of peace”, a former university building that is reportedly the largest refugee ghetto in Europe. Bathrooms are overcrowded, living conditions are austere, and inhabitants live hand to mouth – but it is a functioning shelter.
The global crisis is highly visible across Rome. Inside the Santi Apostoli church, home to around 50 migrants, a single mother sits in a two-person tent. Francesca Agostinho and her three-year-old son were evicted from an abandoned building in the Cinecitta neighbourhood in August, along with more than 40 other families.
“The lack of support from the authorities is influenced by public opinion,” she says. “They don’t help us because that would damage their position. For many Italians the violence against us is normal: we deserve it, we are not human beings, we are animals, pieces of shit. We’re just black people.”
Humanitarian organisations are increasing the pressure on the Italian government and Europe to better help migrants and refugees, not harm them.
“Instead of long-term policies that respond to the basic needs of the relatively manageable number of people now living in inhumane conditions, we increasingly witness the criminalisation of migrants and refugees,” says Tommaso Fabbri, head of MSF’s projects in Italy.
That drives Rome’s migrants into the shadows.
“We do not like to occupy buildings and live illegally but it’s better than living on the street,” says Yemane Senai, an Eritrean who also lived in Via Curtatone. “We are refugees and we have rights. I love Rome, but Rome doesn’t love us.”
Some names have been changed to protect identities