The ‘camps system’ in Italy: Corruption, inefficiencies and practices of resistance

by Riccardo Armillei


The alarming proliferation of ‘campi nomadi’ (nomad camps) in Italy intensifies the urgency of analysing their internal mechanism and the complex relation between all the parties [1]; ‘camp dwellers’, government agencies and Civil Society organisations [CSOs][2], involved in their production and reification. To arrive at an adequate appreciation of this nexus, the three components of what has been termed the ‘camps system’ have been analysed separately. This approach helped to pinpoint how they have combined to produce a hegemonic perspective on Romani issues, which yields a simplistic binary interpretation of a complex and dynamic phenomenon: Romanies are generally viewed as either victims or threats, narrowing the range of responses to charity or hostility.

Only in recent years a growing awareness regarding the agency of camp inhabitants has re-emerged more consistently after a period in which an ‘encamped life’ was at times associated to Agamben’s (1998) ‘bare life’ and Foucault’s (1977) ‘biopolitics’. Nevertheless, scholars are still hesitant in developing a current of study looking specifically at camps, not only as ‘resistance sites’, but more broadly as ‘all-inclusive systems’, where interacting and interdependent agents form an integrated whole. Through in-depth analysis of this specific socio-political context I was able to observe the existence of a democratic deficit in the way these actors operate and co-operate with each other: competition and antagonisms, corruption, lack of transparency and accountability, and inefficiencies have all contributed over the years to producing and maintaining the present living situation of the Romani peoples.

Italian Government

Instead of building capacity and autonomy among the Romani minority groups, the Italian institutions chose to adopt an approach that produces and replicates the opposite effect, implementing policies which are completely centred on the institutionalisation of the Romanies in ‘camps’. A number of scholars have already criticised this strategy arguing that the situation of the Romanies, both locally and nationally, is an issue characterised by political bipartisanship. ‘Camp dwellers’ and ‘campi nomadi’ can be understood as liminal subjects and spaces, whose relationship with institutions, CSOs and mainstream society is best characterised by Agamben’s (1998) notion of ‘inclusive exclusion’. Romanies are neither included, nor absolutely excluded. They have a distinctive place within Italian society. Millions of euro are spent every year on Romani-related issues. This has become a huge business involving hundreds of employees, in public and private sectors alike. On the one hand the government invests significant sums in supposed ‘inclusion’ projects; on the other it keeps promoting the ‘politica dei campi’ (camps policy), forced evictions and emergency measures.

The 2008 ‘Nomad Emergency’ and 2012 ‘National Strategy’ represent the clearest examples of the contradictory approach adopted by public institutions. The Italian Government, responding to a European Union request, introduced several measures to tackle the causes of marginalisation and social exclusion of Romanies. Their condition was defined as a ‘humanitarian emergency’ (Sigona, 2009, p. 277) and a ‘humanitarian problem’ (Clough Marinaro & Daniele, 2011, p. 621). The humanitarian construction of the measures towards the Romanies turned them in something acceptable within strategies of control. This goes well together with van Baar’s (2014) ‘reasonable anti-Gypsyism’. In other words, the belief that they would otherwise be involved in ‘illegal’ practices that could harm ‘our’ rights and freedoms justifies a differential treatment of the Romanies (van Baar, 2015). Their implementation, though, was in the end rather ineffective or even counterproductive. The first type of intervention portrayed Romani issues merely as a security matter. The second type, instead, which aimed at transcending the emergency phase and finding valid alternatives to the ‘camps policy’, neither had any influence over institutional attitudes nor did it increase the involvement of Romani representative bodies.

CSOs/Third Sector

In the last two decades neither the ‘State’ nor the ‘market’ has coped with changes in the demographic structure that have generated demands for new services (Barbetta, 2000). So CSOs — also known as ‘Terzo Settore’ (Third Sector) – sprang up in response to these demands (which usually involved health care, educational, recreational and cultural services). The rise of what has been defined as a ‘welfare mix’ brought about not only greater involvement of non-profit organisations in welfare politics, but also the establishment of informal arrangements between public authorities and CSOs which were mediated by political patronage (Ranci, 1994, p. 247). Despite the fact these organisations are contracted by local governments through a system of public bidding which in the 2000s became more transparent (Patanè, 2003), a proportion of public procurement notices continues to conceal the existence of special agreements rooted in political patronage (Fazzi, 2011; Springhetti, 2009).

Because of the financial and economic crisis, particularly in the last decade, public resources towards the social sector have been constantly decreasing at the expense of service quality. This had direct repercussions for Third Sector organizations, since local institutions kept outsourcing their work to them. This situation, together with increasing pressure towards cost rationalisation and growing competition (often as a consequence of lowest bid auction mechanisms; Springhetti, 2009), confirmed theses about Third Sector’s dependency on public institution, with isomorphic behaviours as side effects (Di Maggio & Powell 1983; Lori, 2011; Federico, 2012). This led to a dichotomous behaviour enacted by the sub-contracted agents working within ‘nomad camps’: on the one hand, contestation of government policies; on the other hand, compliance with government requirements. Many of these organisations have become self-referential. They often have no or very little time for Romani voices: their own interests and survival have become their main priorities.

As a concluding remark, both the CSOs involved in the ‘camps system’ and the city council departments seldom publish the results of their activities or try to generate a better understanding of the Romanies’ plight. It was thus very difficult to gain a clear understanding of the way institutions and CSOs operate. A lack of official reports, and other studies detailing budgets, objectives, strategies and outcomes, made it impossible to evaluate these organisations scientifically via the elaboration of empirical indices.

The Romani ‘camp dwellers’

A number of authors have described the condition of the ‘Romanies of the camps’ in Italy as institutionalised within a system of ‘patrol and surveillance’. The encampments have been conceptualised as physical spaces where Roma were ‘forced to live’ (Rossi, 2010); as ‘non luogo’ (no man’s land; Bravi & Sigona, 2006), a place whose purpose was to confine the ‘Other’ and where individuals lost their sense of self; as a ‘total institution’ that dehumanised Romanies, leaving them with no real opportunity to be included within Italian society (Nicola, 2011). The camp thus produced and replicated the idea of the Romanies as ‘a “monstrous hybrid’ of humanity and bestiality’ (Todesco 2004, Piasere 2006, cited in Solimene 2013, p. 171) which in turn has served the purpose of justifying the implementation of exceptional measures.

The picture that emerges from the work of Asséo (1989), Piasere (2005) and Calabrò (2008), and more recently from Clough Marinaro (2015), Sigona (2015) Daniele (2011a, 2011b) and Solimene (2012, 2013), reminds us that Romanies should not be regarded as voiceless and passive victims of a hostile society. By drawing upon Wacquant’s (2011) analysis of the ‘ghetto’ as a Janus-faced institution of ethnoracial closure, Clough Marinaro (2015) recognises Rome’s institutional camps’ function as a protective shield, which fosters ‘active forms of identification, resistance, and mobilization from within’ (p. 11). Although relations between the State, the CSOs and the Romani residents are shaped by an unequal struggle, the opposition between ‘rulers’ and ‘ruled’ gives rise to a cycle of power and resistance. Using Foucault’s (1990) words: ‘Where there is power, there is resistance’ (p. 95).

This study confirms Foucauldian’s interpretation of the ‘camp’. This is not just an exogenous institutional means of control and segregation but also an endogenous tool of resistance to government assimilative efforts, which produces self-ghettoisation as a side effect. Over the years the ‘campi nomadi’ have become a ‘battlefield’, an arena of conflict between Romanies (the ‘Gypsy’) and non-Romanies (the ‘Gadje’); not productive space for conflict from which valid solutions could emerge, but rather a site where oppressor and oppressed form and crystallise their own identities as homogenous entities, each in opposition to the other.

Final observations

The Romani experience in Italy constitutes a case unique in the European context, as Italy is the only country whose official policy is to institutionalise its Romani population inside urban ‘ghettos’ (Clough Marinaro, 2009). Analysing this context reveals a series of anomalies resulting from the simultaneous interplay of several agencies. The growing attention to Romani-related issues, both nationally and internationally, led to the establishment of a complex system that a range of actors found appetising: private and public, left- and right-wing political alignments, Romanies and non-Romanies. The Romanies’ current situation has thus been produced by a mix of interrelated factors: a highly politicised issue characterised by bipartisan convergence; the CSOs’ dependence on welfare and an incapacity to act in the interests of its Romani beneficiaries; and, finally, a failure to understand the attitude of the Romani peoples as an act of ‘resistance’.

It can be useful here to think at the situation of Romanies in the context of the Italian approach to cultural diversity. Although in the last few decades the Italian population has become increasingly diverse, Italy can be hardly defined a multicultural society, a concept and a model that are rather missing (Allievi, 2010). The Italian approach to cultural diversity rather oscillates between a well-rooted ethnocentric monoculturalism and an underdeveloped discourse around interculturalism. This paradigm has become a ‘trendy’ concept and been adopted by local authorities and CSOs, particularly within the school system. Yet, intercultural rhetoric, especially in relation to the social inclusion of the Romani peoples, has been too often used automatically and uncritically. Romanies, particularly those living in camps, are generally seen as exogenous elements in Italian society and are expected either to assimilate to the dominant culture or to be removed/expelled, in the worst case.

Although interculturalism has the merit of promoting genuine cross-cultural relations, through dialogue, confrontation, and, most importantly, reciprocal re-configuration of one’s own beliefs and identity, the prevailing trend in Italy is rather the defence of a catholic, monocultural national identity (Allievi, 2010). In addition, the country is still ‘struggling with the overall social inclusion project’ (McSweeney 2011, p. 4). With specific regards to the Romani peoples, it is in place an open conflict which has been ongoing for centuries between ‘Gadje’ and ‘Zingari’. Both of them keep constructing and reifying a strong sense of belonging in opposition to the other. This is accentuated by the fact that Romani peoples do not get the possibility to fully retain and promote their own identity. In fact, a number of institutional ‘roadblocks’ are lessening the possibility of bringing about real change: among others, the lack of cultural recognition as a historico-linguistic minority, the lack of comprehensive national legislation covering Romani issues, a tendency to classify Romani peoples as ‘nomads’, the constant sinking of public funds into the construction and operation of ‘ghetto camps’ rather than permanent housing, and a determination to deny Romanies all opportunity of making decisions for themselves.

Public funds are basically used to promote a ‘fake’ inclusion (Massimiliano Fiorucci, personal communication, December 20, 2011). If the Italian Government does not first address the specific limits of its legislative and cultural framework, all other measures are doomed to fail, and an emergency stance will be the only option. Jiménez Lobeira (2014, p. 398) argues that only a truly liberal and democratic public realm, ‘which is in principle open, plural, inclusive, substantively and normatively neutral, will make the task of building mutual recognition, intercultural exchange, equality, solidarity, and eventually a common political identity, possible’. The recognition and accommodation of minority ethnocultural groups becomes thus fundamental. In this sense, supporting a ‘politics of difference’ will provide certain individuals with a differential treatment, enhancing their freedom to be treated on an equal ground with individuals who are not discriminated against by the general norm. Instead, the incapacity for an individual to be given such a right would harm out-group relationships in favour of in-group connectedness.

As a way to conclude this very brief overview of the complex mechanism of the ‘camps system’, I argue that the Italian government needs to reaffirm its commitment to the promotion of cultural diversity, valorizing immigration and multiculturality as valuable resources. The choice to invest more efficiently on inter-cultural practices might represent a valuable solution for reducing a reciprocal racial hatred. However, the premises for an equal and mutual dialogue are still missing. The relation between Italian majority and Romani minorities is clearly unbalanced. My aim is not to reject the intercultural theory per se, but its future implementation as an official approach to cultural diversity depend on the recognition that at the moment its foundation lays on very unstable grounds.


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[1] This paper presents some of the findings of my PhD thesis, titled Romanies in Italy: From National ‘Emergency’ to National ‘Strategy’ in Rome’s ‘Campi Nomadi’. This study focuses on the city of Rome and provides an investigation of the interactions between Romanies, local institutions and Civil Society organisations.

[2] This term refers to a wide range of actors from various organisational and juridical settings: community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations (World Bank 2013).


Riccardo Armillei is Associate Research Fellow to the UNESCO Chair, Comparative Research in Cultural Diversity and Social Justice, Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Faculty of Arts & Education, Melbourne Burwood Campus, Australia.