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Gypsy vaccination scheme starts

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by Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: March 2 2009 01:32

Italy’s Red Cross has launched its biggest vaccination programme since the second world war, with the goal of immunising several thousand gypsy children living in camps around Rome.

The operation began at Casilino 900, a camp on the eastern outskirts of the capital that is believed to be one of the largest gypsy settlements in Europe. Some two dozen doctors were among 200 Red Cross volunteers that included clowns to provide entertainment in one of the big tents erected for the exercise.

The Red Cross action comes at a critical moment for Rome, with its human rights record under the international spotlight. Gianni Alemanno, the capital’s right-wing mayor, is under scrutiny for his plans to remove almost all the 50 or so legal and illegal gypsy camps around Rome and replace them with a small number of “maxi-camps” . Non-Italian gypsies without proper documentation, mostly from Romania and the Balkans, will be obliged to leave and could face expulsion from Italy.

A Council of Europe report to be released soon is expected to be highly critical of the squalid conditions in the camps, and particularly the treatment of children born in Italy but denied citizenship.

Casilino 900, its shacks and caravans the home for some decades for gypsies from the former Yugoslavia, is under threat of closure. It was one of many camps raided by police and regular army units recently in search of suspected criminals and those without proper documentation. Casilino 900 residents said about 40 men were detained last week.

This sense of fear and uncertainty, explained one woman, was a reason some families had not brought forward their children for vaccination. By mid-afternoon on Saturday about 160 children – accompanied by their mothers – had been vaccinated, with about 100 still not seen by the doctors.

An earlier Red Cross campaign commissioned by mayors to carry out a voluntary census of gypsy camps in Italy’s three biggest cities – Rome, Milan and Naples – ran into similar problems, with residents afraid that the headcount would be a prelude to mass expulsions. Such fears grew in recent weeks when police and army, using their own lists, entered camps and took away suspects.

Mr Alemanno’s plans, while still lacking in detail – including proposed sites for the new camps – have been generally welcomed by Romans who see the gypsy settlements as a health and security hazard.
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