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Photo Shows a Moment of Tenderness as Police Used Water Cannons for ‘Shocking Eviction’ of Refugees

Angelo Carconi/ANSA/AP

It’s a photograph that shows a moment of humanity, surrounded by total chaos.

As police officers in Rome sprayed water cannons to evict refugees and migrants from a public square, those being evicted returned fire with bottles, stones, and gas canisters.

But in the middle of the carnage, a police officer was photographed comforting a refugee woman in floods of tears.

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The image was taken at Rome’s Piazza Indipendenza, where refugees and migrants — many from Eritrea and Ethiopia — have been sleeping rough for days, since they were evicted from a squatted building where they have been living for four years on August 19.

About 200 people, 50 of them women, had remained outside the building in protest, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. Meanwhile around 100 people, including families, pregnant women, and people with disabilities, remained inside the building.  

But at 6 a.m. on Thursday, reportedly without giving advance notice, police in riot gear returned to clear those remaining inside the building and the square outside.

Global Citizen campaigns to achieve support for refugees across the world, and alleviate suffering for those living through humanitarian crises. You can take action here.

The incident has been criticised by charities including Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), which called for a “serious and transparent investigation” into the use of police force.

“Italian authorities need to ask hard questions about this shocking eviction and, in particular, whether the force used by police was necessary and proportionate,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Using police in riot gear to force vulnerable people out of their homes with little warning and nowhere to go is just about the opposite of how things should be handled.”

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Medici Senza Frontiere, the Italian branch of Doctors Without Borders, posted on Twitter that it had provided medical assistance to 13 people — and had to call ambulances to take four women to hospital.

Police have said the action was “urgent and necessary,” because the gas tanks used for cooking inside the building posed a risk.

They said the water cannons were used to “prevent fires and flammable liquids from being lit.”

Police said in a statement that four people were under investigation for violent resistance, including throwing a gas canister and rocks at police.

The building was first occupied by squatters in 2013, and a court ordered the eviction in December 2016. However, according to Human Rights Watch, no steps were taken to organise alternative accommodation until after the eviction had begun on August 19.

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Rome city council said the refugees and migrants had been offered alternative accommodation, but many of them wanted to remain in the area.

“Residents have rejected alternatives offered over the past few days because they are temporary, inadequate, or far from their established social networks. Families with children in school are particularly anxious to remain in the neighbourhood, with the beginning of the school year just two weeks away,” HRW added in its statement.

Tension has been building between authorities, the general public, and refugees and migrants in the past weeks in Italy, as the numbers of new-arrivals to the country continue to climb.

So far this year, around 100,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Italy, reported The Telegraph, after around 181,000 people arrived the year before.

Neighbouring countries, including France and Austria, have tightened their borders, leaving Italy to resort to serious measures.