Police use water cannon on migrants in Rome, reflecting new, hard-line tactics

Italian riot police turned a water cannon on Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants in Rome on Thursday, scattering them from a piazza where they had camped for five days after being evicted from a building where they had been squatting for several years.

Migrants threw bottles and gas canisters at the police, but were driven back by the water jet in Piazza Indipendenza, yards from Rome’s central Termini station. Among the migrants bowled over by the water was a woman walking with a crutch.

The clash reflected Italy’s increasingly hard line on migrants. About 400,000 have arrived since 2014, mostly sailing from Libya.

Almost all of the evicted migrants had reportedly received refugee status, or a similar form of protection, prompting protesters and aid groups to claim the eviction and the police operation proved Rome is abandoning migrants it had provided with asylum.

“In Germany and Sweden, refugees get help with housing. Here in Italy, you get evicted,” said Father Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean priest who assists migrants in Italy.

In the lead-up to the clashes, 800 Eritreans and Ethiopians were evicted on Saturday from an empty office building on Piazza Indipendenza that had been occupied by migrants since 2013.

Around 100 set up camp with their suitcases on the grass in the piazza outside the building. Early on Thursday, police arrived and turned their water cannon on the group.

In a statement, Rome police said the operation was “urgent and necessary” after the migrants refused offers of alternative accommodation, but also because of the threat from migrants equipping themselves with gas canisters and inflammable materials.

Zerai said the accommodation offer consisted of 80 places in migrant centers. “That is not going to take care of the 800 people who were evicted,” he said. “And why did they only start thinking of alternatives after evicting all those people?” he said.

After the piazza was cleared, migrants regrouped closer to Termini station before riot police chased them across a parking area in front of frightened tourists. In a video published by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, one person, presumed to be an officer, is heard saying: “If they throw something, break their arm.”

“It is shaming that the lack of alternative housing led to violence,” said charity Doctors Without Borders, which treated 13 of the migrants, mainly women, for injuries after the police operation.

Eritreans frequently qualify for asylum after fleeing their country’s brutal government, which keeps men in military service for decades. Many of the 800 who were living in the occupied building work in Rome and send their children to local schools.

"They are people fleeing war and persecution, already victims of terrible trauma. People who have the right to support to integration in a way to become autonomous," said Stephane Jaquemet of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“We are refugees, not terrorists,” said Yohannes Haglos, 35, one of the Eritrean refugees camped in the piazza. “Why does Italy hand out asylum permits only to turn its back on you, offering no languages courses, no help at all?”

Kington is a special correspondent.

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