Personal stories: What rights mean on the ground
MARÍA DUMITRU AND MARIUS ALEXANDRU, ITALY
María Dumitru and Marius Alexandru are 28-year-old Roma of Romanian origin who have three small children. Since they arrived in Italy in 2004, they have been forcibly evicted from camps five times, and never offered any kind of alternative accommodation.
On 11 November 2009 they endured their latest forced eviction from an unauthorized camp near Via Centocelle in Rome. They now live in a squat nearby.
“We first went to Ponticelli camp, in Naples,” says María. “But after a while the police evicted us. They told me that if they saw me again in that area, they would take my kids away from me and put them in an orphanage.”
They had similar experiences in Caivano (Naples) and in a camp near via Cristoforo Colombo (Rome). “The police destroyed everything,” says Marius. In the early months of 2008 his family settled in Via Centocelle camp and in April the same year they were evicted, although they came back immediately. Since his most recent eviction, Marius says: “Now we will sleep in the street. What can we do?… we have been in seven different camps in five years. It is difficult, very difficult.”
Before their recent eviction, María talked about their life: “I am a bit ashamed because my husband scavenges for iron and copper in the rubbish to sell, and earns a little bit of money so we can buy food. He also gets clothes from the rubbish because we do not have money to buy them at the shop. It is only thanks to him that we have something to eat. If it was not for him, we would live on the street. … We have to pay for the school as well; when the teacher tells us to buy exercise books, pens… we end up paying something like €5.
“We had children early, but I do not want my children to do the same. I want them to go to school and be able to find a job. I would like them all to have a better life than the one I had.”
THE RESIDENTS OF PRIMAVERII STREET, ROMANIA
In 2004, more than 100 Roma were forcibly evicted by municipal authorities from a building located in the centre of Miercurea Ciuc – the capital city of Harghita County in central Romania. Most were resettled by the authorities on the outskirts of the town at the end of Primaverii Street, behind a sewage treatment plant. Some moved themselves to a garbage dump a couple of kilometres away, rather than move to the sewage plant.
The authorities began discussing the evacuation of the building in 2001 with the residents, saying they needed to move them for their own safety. But they did not carry out a full consultation process with the community. The authorities bought eight mobile metal cabins in 2001 to house the residents elsewhere, and placed them next to the sewage plant, in readiness for their new inhabitants. In 2003, the municipal council approved the demolition of the building. According to the families, the authorities assured them the cabins were a temporary solution and that proper housing would be made available in due course.
In the intervening years between 2001 and 2004, the residents of Pictor Nagy Imre Street were given no opportunity to challenge the eviction decision. They were given no opportunity to engage with the decision-making process and influence their own future. The authorities also made no attempt to explore possible alternatives to the eviction.
Sandor, one of the residents, told Amnesty International: “They came and said that we had to move the next day. They gave us 24 hours to move. They said that if we didn’t come out they would come with the demolition machines and pull [the building] down anyway.”
More than five years later, the evicted families continue to live in extremely precarious conditions that do not fulfil the human right to adequate housing: legal security of tenure; availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure; location and habitability. Another resident, Tibor, talks of the impact of inadequate facilities: “We need a house, where we can get up and wash ourselves. They don’t let us anywhere, being this dirty; they say we stink. We want to be allowed in to places. In the winter we have to wash ourselves in cold water.”
They continue to be excluded, cast to the fringes of the city they call home.
SMILJANA, BELVIL, SERBIA
“I was born in Belgrade, but… lived in Niš for 30 years until I fought with my husband, and came to live in Belgrade with my mother. But she was 78 years old and she could not cope with all of us, so we rented a flat. I made some money selling things in the markets, but it was not enough to pay for electricity, and we were fined €4,500 for not paying the electricity, so I had to sell my share of my mother’s flat to pay the fine, and we came to Belvil three years ago... I paid €200 for the house… My daughter told me to come here, and my son-in-law said it was a good place because you can sell stuff, but the unofficial market at Buvliak has been closed and now it is difficult to buy food.
“No one has told us what they are doing. We are worried they might come tomorrow and destroy the house. Maybe they will give us seven days like in the other part of the settlement [Blok 67]: they stuck up notices about the deadline but then they came at four in the morning. It could happen to us as well. They will come with the police. We can see the road, and we know it will come through here.”
Massive building programmes in Belgrade have put hundreds of Roma families under the threat of forced evictions where they will be forced to leave their homes without proper consultation or notice and without the provision of adequate alternative housing. As a result of forced evictions, livelihoods may be lost, property damaged, access to health and education made impossible. In carrying out these forced evictions the Serbian authorities are violating their obligations under international law, including ensuring the right to adequate housing.
On 31 August 2009, Romani families living under the Gazela Bridge were surrounded by police as trucks and bulldozers appeared. Journalists were prevented from coming near the site. In less than three hours around 114 families were bussed to six sites on the outskirts of Belgrade and given accommodation in metal containers. Another 64 families were transported to parts of southern Serbia. Few of them had enough time to rescue their belongings before the bulldozers moved in.
VĚRA, 37, AND HER DAUGHTER MARGITA, 9, CZECH REPUBLIC
Vĕra is a 37-year-old Romani mother who is about to complete her university degree. She is married to a non-Roma man with whom she has two daughters, aged nine years and 21 months. Vĕra worked as a teaching assistant at School P before she went on maternity leave.
Vĕra’s older daughter, Margita, attended School N in the first grade, but found it hard to keep up with the study load there. As the only Romani pupil in her class at School N, she was frequently laughed at and hardly made any friends. “The children used to call her ‘gypsy’,” Vĕra told Amnesty International.
When Margita was in grade two she was diagnosed by the Pedagogical-Psychological Counselling Centre as having learning difficulties and it was recommended she transfer to another mainstream elementary school, which would give her more attention and support. Vĕra decided to move her daughter to the mainstream Roma-only School P.
Vĕra acknowledges that segregated schooling is a problem, and also admits that Margita is not happy that she is half-Roma, as Roma are stigmatized in Czech society. “I hope that Margita will one day accept her Romani origin and will understand that Roma people are normal as everybody else.” Vĕra highlights the discrimination against the Romani community in the Czech Republic: “I feel that everywhere. I am a nurse, but I had problems finding a job in my specialization, so I started to work as a [teaching] assistant. I decided to study and help Roma people in the same situation. […] I wish more Romani students went to university. I wish they were not scared. I was scared to go and study, too. It is hard; you have to work very hard. But it is worth it.”
FRANTIŠEK, 11, CZECH REPUBLIC
At the age of six, František enrolled at School N and until the fourth grade he had encountered no problems.
But in February 2008, on account of his allegedly disruptive behaviour, his teacher and the school’s counsellor suggested František be assessed by the Pedagogical-Psychological Counselling Centre, which in turn recommended his temporary transfer to School I for a four month diagnostic stay.
Towards the end of the observation period, the school’s director told František’s mother, Renata, that the boy was “completely unidentifiable” with the allegations made by the School N; that he was “a nice boy […] interested in learning”, therefore he would recommend his return to School N as the boy “had nothing to do with [the practical elementary] school” and he “surpassed in knowledge his schoolmates”.
According to Renata, who works as social worker for an Ostrava-based NGO, the level of the practical elementary school’s curriculum was inferior to the one taught at the mainstream elementary school However, František had found relief at School I as “the teachers [were] very nice and […] they praised him a lot […] [and] the attitude towards children was completely different from School N […] so [he] always looked forward to going to school.”
František returned to School N in June 2008 but, due to his four-month placement at the practical school, where a reduced curriculum was taught, he failed his final written exams and had to repeat the grade. In the school year 2008/2009 František was again in grade 4 and had been stigmatized among his classmates as somebody who had been sent to the school for pupils with “mild mental disabilities”. During the first six months of the school year, the situation had taken a bad turn as the teachers complained on a regular basis about František’s behaviour and claimed to be unable to control and manage him. Moreover, Renata told Amnesty International that during class activities, such as a trip to the planetarium, marionette theatre, music day and sports matches, František was constantly excluded as teachers assumed that “[he] was not interested in such things.”
This resulted in František not being motivated, he “[did] not want to learn, [did] not want to prepare for school and he [was] begging to be sent back to School I” against the recommendation of the Pedagogical-Psychological Counselling Centre.
In March 2009, having had enough of the situation at School N, and after she consulted the Pedagogical-Psychological Counselling Centre, Renata decided to move František to another school, which was primarily attended by Romani children, and was located close to her work.
SALTANA AHMETOVICH, ITALY
Saltana Ahmetovich (Nino) is a 30-year-old Italian Roma. He was born in Italy and has lived all his life in camps. His parents, originally from Montenegro, arrived in the country in 1969 and have lived in Milan, Naples and, finally, Rome, where most of his family settled in 1979. Since 1996, Nino has lived in a caravan in La Monachina, a “tolerated” camp in the west of the city. Nino looks back to his move to La Monachina camp in 1996. “We were in Battistini [a nearby camp] but we were at risk of being burnt alive; some people threw Molotov cocktails at us because they did not want us to be there as we were close to residential buildings. Police and fire brigades arrived and told us to join our relatives at La Monachina. Before that we lived in several camps in Milan and Naples… the police used to come and evict us because we were occupying public land, and then we were moved to another camp.
“I now live in a caravan… but when we came to La Monachina we had nothing… myself, my brother-in-law and a friend constructed a house for my mother, my sister and my niece… Every three years we have to demolish it and build it again because it gets rotten.”
Nino has had a variety of jobs, but has struggled to find anything permanent.
He is worried about his current situation: “My first work was in a church, cleaning… Then I left that job and started looking after an elderly person. But eventually the person I was looking after died… After that, I sold plants [and] iron. Between September 2008 and November 2009 I cleaned a park nearby. I got the job through a government sponsored employment programme. That’s ended. Now I sell iron but I am not getting enough money. How will I survive? What I am going to do?
“I haven’t applied for social housing because it would be useless. If I say: ‘My name is Saltana Ahmetovich, I live in La Monachina,’ the municipality would never give a house to me. I have requested electricity, and they don’t even want to connect that… imagine a house!”
Travel the world to find out about human rights and poverty. Learn about and take action on maternal mortality, human rights abuses in slums, the need for access to justice for those whose rights have been denied. Meet people and communities, listen to their stories, tell your own.