The city of Rome has pledged to dismantle state-sanctioned ghettos built specifically for Roma people after an Italian court found the capital guilty of ethnic discrimination.
The office of the mayor, Ignazio Marino, said the city would not challenge the unprecedented legal decision.
“There are meetings going on between the government and city officials to establish the financing for the dismantling of the so-called camps,” a spokesperson for his office said.
The legal decision was announced last month, just weeks after it emerged that one of the big “camps” for the Roma, or Gypsy, families on the outskirts of the city was the subject of a land-swap proposal between the alleged criminal Salvatore Buzzi, who was already identified by prosecutors as a key player in a in Rome, and the French DIY company Leroy Merlin.
The story – a relatively small twist in a much larger public corruption investigation that has ensnared dozens of politicians – has exposed the intersection between corruption and public housing for Italy’s most vulnerable residents, with funds that are meant to be directed to the poor allegedly being skimmed off. Until his arrest late last year, Buzzi was the head of a cooperative that managed migrant and Romany facilities.
In a telephone exchange recorded by investigators, Buzzi can be heard bragging that he had a turnover of €40m (£28m) thanks to the “Gypsies … and migrants”.
“Do you have any idea how much I make on these immigrants?” he said. “Drug trafficking is not as profitable.”
Although , the investigation into the corruption of public contracts has continued, with new revelations about the breadth of wrongdoing reported in the press on a weekly basis.
About 4,000 Roma live in state-sanctioned ghettos in Rome, according to a . They are located outside the city and consist of pre-fabricated containers or mobile homes in fenced-off areas, often without adequate sanitation facilities or other basic necessities, such as clean drinking water. Inhabitants are excluded from other social housing despite many having lived in Italy for generations; a fact the tribunal in Rome cited as evidence of discrimination on ethnic grounds.
Press access to the ghettos is limited, but the Guardian recently visited a facility on Via Salaria which is meant to provide temporary housing for Romany families who have been displaced or evicted from other homes.
The entrance displays a list of residents who must check in and out. While Rome allegedly spent €2m on the facility in 2014, and nearly €30m on all such facilities, the living conditions are squalid.
Residents of the Via Salaria facility, which is next to a rubbish dump, built their own makeshift kitchen from appliances found on the street after fighting for permission to do so.
“If you take a car and take a look at the camps, you really find no evidence of such money in these places,” said Costanza Hermanin, an expert at the Open Society Foundations which campaign for greater Roma integration.
Italy has been obliged to have an integration plan under EU rules since 2013, but Hermanin called it a “dead letter”. The OSF and other groups are lobbying the European commission to sanction for not doing enough to integrate the minority population.
“Nothing has been done,” Hermanin said. “Maybe there have been some regional consultations with Romany, but this situation of the camps has not changed, and the number of people living in them has not been reduced.”
At Via Salaria, most of the women who guardedly spoke to journalists as an imposing facility employee looked on, said their attempts to find jobs and build better lives were largely fruitless. They said they did not have adequate resident or working papers and were not given jobs because they were Roma.
Petcu Madalina Denisr, 32, who has lived in the facility for three years with her son and mother, who is handicapped and confined to a bed, said she made her eight-year-old urinate and defecate in a bucket in their room because the bathrooms were so disgusting. He told her he felt Italian, not Romany, she said.
“We cannot live like this. People are afraid to talk, but I’m not afraid. I am fighting, I am fighting for my son,” she said, crying.
A found that 86% of Italians had very or somewhat unfavourable views of the Roma population in Italy. This compares with 43% across Europe holding the same view.
Those views have likely been shaped by the opinions expressed by the head of the rightwing Northern League party, Matteo Salvini, who routinely blames Italy’s problems on the Roma population and regularly calls for the razing of their camps.
Francesco Palermo, a senator from Alto Adige in northern Italy, who is a rare voice of support for the minority group, said the Rome court ruling was a “real breakthrough” because it showed that the segregation was “not the consequence of the ‘Roma emergency’ but rather its cause”.
The decision , which said Italy should start dismantling the segregated housing. At a minimum, it said, no new camps should be planned or built.
While the mayor’s office has promised reforms, activists said they had little confidence that action was imminent.
“They don’t have any concrete idea for the moment,” said Danilo Giannese, a spokesman for the activist group Associazione 21 Luglio, which helped bring the case. “They have been saying they will do it for a long time. But for the moment, only words.”
According to prosecutors, the now-defunct deal quietly negotiated between Buzzi and Leroy Merlin representatives would have seen the French firm pay about €10m to relocate, rebuild, and expand the Romany facility known as La Barbuta. In exchange, Leroy Merlin – who met Buzzi to discuss the deal, according to transcripts of a wire tap prosecutors kept on him – would be given the cleared land to build a large mall.
A spokeswoman for Leroy Merlin said she was not aware of the company’s link to Buzzi. She said the firm was not in the business of building facilities for Roma and declined to comment further. The proposed land swap has since been cancelled.
Giuseppe Pignatone, the prosecutor leading the Mafia Capitale investigations, told the Guardian: “There is no evidence that might suggest that Leroy Merlin knew anything of the crimes [allegedly] committed by Buzzi.”