ROME—The 70 or so migrant families who have set up camp in the portico of the majestic Santi Apostoli basilica in the heart of this ancient city are nervous. Most have been there since early August when officials evicted them from a building they had been occupying illegally on the edge of town. They are camped here in faded tents or under soiled blankets strung across ropes between the marble pillars.
Others moved in just last week after city authorities used brute force to evict around 800 people from a seven-story office building they had been occupying near the city’s central train station for nearly four years. Most were Eritrean and Somali, and they had been given refugee status, but that does not come with a guarantee of work or of housing. Ironically, asylum-seekers are fed and housed by the state, but once their petitions are granted, they’re cut off.
The stragglers from that mass eviction who had then set up camp in a nearby park were forcibly removed with water cannons late last week, which drew strong criticism from humanitarian groups and everyday citizens who watched in horror as pregnant women and disabled people were literally blown off their feet with powerful jets of cold water.
On Saturday, a march in support of those evicted drew thousands to the streets of Rome, but when the march ended, few of the refugees had anywhere to sleep except the very streets they had just marched down.
Those who came here to Santi Apostoli, a few hundred feet from where the march ended, did so because they believe Pope Francis will protect them. “This is church property,” a young woman from Eritrea told The Daily Beast. “This is the only safe place for us now.”
She can be forgiven for having blind faith in Francis’s big heart. After all, this pope has been vocal about migrant and refugee rights, going so far as to say that “even measures of national security” should be pushed aside when considering humane treatment of migrants.
And after the mass office block eviction and water cannon fiasco last week, he said the Catholic Church would welcome those evicted, although it remains to be seen just how the church, which already provides food, showers, barber service, and plenty of housing could do much more than it already has.
On Sunday, he did not mention the migrants in his noontime Angelus address, which was a disappointment to many gathered at St. Peter’s, who had hoped he’d offer some clarity as to just what he meant by the church’s invitation.
So, the Santi Apostoli tent camp is a tinderbox that will undoubtedly be cleared in the coming days, no matter who owns the sidewalk.
When the squatters first arrived, the children played in the nearby green areas and the residents would walk to the Vatican a few miles away to use its free shower and laundry services. But now they are too afraid to move, fearful that the city will come sweep up their tents if they are empty for any period of time. No one expects to be here much longer, but they will stay as long as they can because they quite literally have nowhere else to go.
“I feel sorry for the people, yes, but we cannot have a tent camp in the middle of ancient Rome,” an elderly woman named Maria Teresa said Sunday morning as she walked her little dog through the alley near the church tent camp. “They defecate in the streets because none of the restaurants will let them in,” she said, pointing to piles of odorific human waste on the cobblestones. “They have to go sooner or later.”
In fact, the city is not only struggling with what to do with the Santi Apostoli squatters, but what to do with nearly 60 palazzi and villas now illegally occupied by migrants and refugees. In the case of the office building that was evacuated last week, the refugees had set up makeshift kitchens in areas with no ventilation.
Authorities found 57 large gas canisters in the building, which is a fire hazard that could have easily led to a major disaster. The other occupied buildings pose the same risks.
There is no state-run reception center for asylum-seekers in the capital, which is part of the problem. The Catholic Church and some groups such as the Baobab Center pick up the slack, although they tend to just feed people living in the rough rather than offering them a real bed because there just aren’t any.
Rome’s problems are in the spotlight at the moment, but they are a symptom of a far bigger concern about how to manage the hundreds of thousands who have landed in Italy over the last few years who no longer get a free pass into northern Europe. Italy, for many years, was seen as the only European country where asylum-seekers could feel safe. Part of that was because so few stayed here in the country once they’d been rescued. And because most migrants didn’t stay, Italy never really had to formulate a long-term strategy for integration and housing.
That is no longer the case after a tightening of the borders with France and Austria. The fact that many more asylum-seekers are now stuck in Italy, coupled with looming Italian elections that must be held before next May, has led to a clear change of heart that started in July with a clampdown on nongovernmental organizations’ rescue boats bringing the boat people into the country.
The Catholic Church has always played an instrumental role in housing migrants, but even it is overcapacity and facing increasing hostility. Last week, a parish priest near the Tuscan town near Pistoia published a photo on Facebook of a group of smiling African asylum-seekers enjoying a day out at a local swimming pool, only to be met with vile criticism from Italy’s extreme-right leader Matteo Salvini, who accused the priest of being anti-Italian, which invited a slew of racist insults from fed-up citizens.
For his part, Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti has shifted the focus from how to save migrants from drowning at sea to how to stop them from coming in the first place. He has forged an uneasy alliance with Libya, which has led to vast investments and open cooperation despite the fact that many migrants are known to suffer torture, rape, and other abuses when they are stuck in Libya.
A boatload of migrants picked up by one of the NGO rescue ships still operating at sea tweeted pictures of one of their number with stab wounds and other signs of torture he endured in Libya. Allegations outlined in a Reuters exposé that Italy is actually paying a militia to stop smugglers from bringing people over, if true, are worrying even though the alleged deal was only to stop the migrant flood for one month.
The controversial strategy has indeed worked to stanch the flow so far, and arrivals into Italy have dropped to a trickle in recent weeks, down nearly 75 percent from a year ago, although a number of new arrivals over the weekend suggest that things are shifting once again and the relative calm may be short-lived. For the people camped out on the sidewalk of Santi Apostoli, fewer arrivals may buy them more time, but it will almost certainly not give them peace.