Italy censured over human rights
By Guy Dinmore in Rome
July 8, 2012 6:04 pm
The stench from one toilet and one shower for 250 people permeates
sweltering corridors and windowless cubby-holes. Asafaw, young and mentally
disturbed from his years in the Eritrean army, gazes vacantly from a camp
bed, still wearing military fatigues.
Salaam (peace) Palace, as it is known to its more than 800 inhabitants - all
fugitives from war or persecution in Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia -
resembles those familiar hellholes found near battle zones across the globe.
But this derelict, eight-storey, former government building illegally
occupied by desperate refugees stands on the edge of Rome, capital of the
world's eighth-biggest economy.
Unknown to almost all Italians, Salaam Palace is nonetheless well-known in
the Horn of Africa as the final destination to be reached at the end of a
long and treacherous journey across desert and sea.
Last week it received an unusual visitor in the form of Nils Muiznieks,
Europe's top human rights official who expressed strong criticism of Italy
under its technocrat government, based on its treatment of refugees,
detained immigrants and the Roma, as the gypsy communities prefer to call
"I saw a window of opportunity in this government to push for a more
complete break with past practices," Mr Muiznieks, the Council of Europe's
human rights commissioner, told the Financial Times, voicing shock and
disappointment at what he had witnessed.
"Italy is relatively generous in giving refugee status but very little after
that," he said of the refugees in Salaam Palace, noting that the
municipality had even cut off water supplies to the building for three days
Effectively abandoned by a system that provides no work, money or shelter,
the refugees get asylum status but are then "ghosts" trapped in a
Kafka-esque nightmare. Living illegally it is all but impossible to obtain
the necessary local residency papers that everyone needs in Italy to legally
work and access services such as schools and healthcare.
Donatella D'Angelo, a local doctor who set up Cittadini del Mondo (Citizens
of the World), an NGO, holds a weekly clinic in Salaam Palace and tries to
help the refugees through the bureaucratic maze. Mr Muiznieks calls her a
"saint". To her patients, Dr D'Angelo and her volunteer helper, Angelo, who
otherwise runs a newspaper kiosk, are known as the "two angels".
She is particularly alarmed by the mental health of some of the young men,
many ex-soldiers, and the danger they pose, with about 50 children living
"One locked a child in a freezer and then attacked someone with a machete,"
Refugees gather around, clutching bundles of documents, telling their
stories. All are desperate to leave Italy and reach what they see as the
promised land of northern Europe. Many have tried, only to be deported back
to Italy as their place of arrival in Europe, under what is known as the
"We came from war in Darfur but now we are in a cold war. You are supposed
to be free but you are not," says Bahar Abdalla who is one of eight on the
"committee" that tries to keep order in Salaam Palace.
Kbrom Tesfamihret, a 31-year-old from Eritrea, speaks eloquently in English
and Italian of the months he has spent in prison in France, Holland and
Switzerland for the "crime" of receiving asylum in Italy. "I will go back to
Switzerland," he says. "It is better to be in prison in Switzerland than to
However such is Italy's growing bad name for its neglect of refugees that
this process of deportations could change, with far-reaching legal
implications across Europe, especially if Rome fails to react to pressure
from Mr Muiznieks and the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights.
Some courts in Germany and Austria have already put deportation orders on
On the issue of the Roma communities, Mr Muiznieks is strongly critical of
Mario Monti's government which he noted had appealed against a high court
ruling on the illegality of emergency powers imposed by the previous
administration of Silvio Berlusconi.
Despite drawing up a national strategy of "integration" in response to EU
instructions, Italy's government has continued to build "super-camps" to
house Roma families after forced evictions from unofficial settlements.
"This is not the solution to Roma integration," Mr Muiznieks said after
visiting the fenced camp of Salone, condemning conditions there and its
remoteness from public transport, schools and work.
Carlo Stasolla, head of the 21 Luglio (July 21) association defending Roma
rights, says: "Nothing has changed with this government."
"There is an institutional racism that continues," he told the FT. "Imagine
that a state in Europe decides to acquire a piece of land outside the city
with fences, tele-cameras and security guards and puts inside a group - like
the Jews or Roma - solely on the basis of their ethnicity," he said, also
attacking the silence of the Church on the issue.
Received on Sun Jul 08 2012 - 16:17:51 EDT