Rachida Ahmetovic doesn’t sleep at night – she worries too much about cockroaches crawling into her children’s ears.
The 43-year-old mother of 10 has, for 25 years, eked out a life at Lombroso, a Roma camp on the outskirts of Rome that is home to 192 people, including 103 children.
Services are either poor or non-existent: Ahmetovic makes a four-hour round trip by foot to get her children to four different schools; power and sewage systems are unreliable and the site floods regularly.
Camps like this are vulnerable in other ways, too: populist, right-wing politicians act tough by promising to crack down on their inhabitants. (An educator who works with Roma tells me that, while they empathise with Syrian refugees, they are relieved not to be the focal point of hate for a change.)
The campaigning group Associazione 21 luglio, which records attacks on Roma people in Italy, noted a total of 15 shootings and firebombings between February and August 2015.
“It’s like living in a concentration camp – it’s not a good place for children to grow up in,” Ahmetovic says.
These places are hidden and hard to get into. We were supposed to see another Roma camp – where the population had swelled from 300 to 1,000 without any improvement to facilities – but the visit was abruptly cancelled minutes beforehand, as tensions were high after a shooting days earlier.
Only 12 Lombroso residents have Italian citizenship and some are not recognised by any state – meaning that, as visit facilitator Gianfranco Deramo says, “Here, in the capital of Italy, [people’s] human rights are fundamentally denied.”
Stable employment, then, is a distant dream for many. Bric-a-brac spills out of the cramped, rickety containers that serve as homes: old CDs, chipped ceramics and peeling furniture are leftovers of attempts to make a basic living by fixing or hawking what others throw out.
The decades-long limbo of such camps, Deramo says, is a result of inept policy rather than direct racism. Minutes before arriving at Lombroso, we learn that jittery local authority officials have got wind of our visit and will lead us round – along with a police escort – such is their embarrassment.
Ahmetovic chuckles constantly about the “temporary” camp that has been her home since 1991, but this barely masks her weariness. “We’re tired of suffering in the camps without the outside world seeing the conditions we live in,” she says.