Italy cracks down on its Roma (gypsies)

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Jul 27 17:20:40 UTC 2008

 Italy cracks down on its Roma (gypsies) A census of those living in some
700 often-squalid camps across the country, often blamed for much of Italy's
crime, has raised comparisons to Fascist times. *By Anna Momigliano* |
Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

from the July 25, 2008 edition

Milan, Italy - This week, Red Cross volunteers showed up in a gypsy camp in
the outskirts of Rome, where about 20 families live in tents and shanties.
The volunteers called every resident by name and recorded their personal
data. In some cases, they took mug shots. It was the first step of a
mandatory "gypsy census" in the capital, a controversial measure introduced
by Interior Minister Roberto Maroni to fight crime and illegal immigration.
"What if we substitute the word 'gypsies' with the word 'Jews'?" asked
senior opposition member Anna Finocchiaro provocatively, after Mr. Maroni
vowed last month to open files on "the whole gypsy population," including
fingerprints and mug shots.

The move comes as European leaders meet in Brussels Thursday and Friday to
discuss a new European Union pact on immigration and asylum designed to
harmonize and toughen EU policy toward the continent's estimated 8 million
undocumented migrants. In Italy, which in the past few years has seen a huge
influx of immigrants arriving by boat, the new conservative government came
into power in May with promises of addressing the problem. On Wednesday,
Prime Minister Sylvio Berlusconi – who says citizens "have a fundamental
right not to be afraid" – won Parliament's approval for a law-and-order bill
targeting illegal immigrants, which his government blames for much of
Italy's crime. "Foreigners committed 60 percent of the attempted homicides,
60 percent of the robberies, 82 percent of the muggings," Sandro Mazzatorta
of the anti-immigrant Northern League party told the Senate, referring to
2007 data for the city of Brescia, reported Reuters.

Anti-immigrant political climate

In that context, Maroni's call for a census of all Roma (gypsies), was seen
as discriminatory – especially since some of them are native to Italy and
hold Italian citizenship. The interior minister also belongs to the Northern
League party, which won 8 percent of the vote this spring. "Everybody here
holds a regular Italian ID. There was no need to make a file of anyone, were
it not for our ethnicity" says Giorgio Bezzecchi, a community leader in a
gypsy camp in Milan, where the census was conducted last month.

Nedo Fiano, a prominent Jewish intellectual and a Holocaust survivor, was
also upset by the news of the Milan census. "When I hear a story like that,
I see myself once again wearing that Auschwitz uniform," he says.
Representatives from the EU and United Nations also criticized Maroni's
proposal. Last week, he softened his position slightly, saying that the
measure applies only to Roma living in the roughly 700 often squalid camps
or shantytowns across Italy. Maroni also proposed taking fingerprints of all
Italian citizens, beginning in 2011, so that the filing won't be
discriminatory. He asked the Red Cross to conduct the survey, and said
Monday that he plans to offer Italian citizenships in an humanitarian
gesture to Roma children who are exploited by their parents.

Last week, the conservative Panorama, an investigative newsmagazine,
featured a cover story on a young Roma girl forced to break into apartments
under the threat of sexual abuse by her father. Still, Maroni's gestures did
little to mollify opponents. "The way gypsies are treated nowadays reminds
me of my childhood during the Fascist regime," said former president of the
Unions of the Jewish Communities in Italy Amos Luzzatto, pointing out that a
similar process of keeping files on the Jewish population was ordered by
Benito Mussolini. Famiglia Cristiana, a weekly Catholic magazine, also
compared the decree to the racial laws imposed by the Fascist regime in a
June editorial.

Many, however, defended the census, including Bruno Vespa, host of the most
widely watched TV talk show. According to a poll released Monday, about 67
percent of Italians support Maroni's plan.

Rich-poor divide on rights vs. security

Roma and recent immigrants often live in the outskirts of the major cities,
building their camps and shantytowns close to neighborhoods populated by
working-class Italians. As residents of poor neighborhoods are getting
exasperated with the lack of security, there is a growing sentiment that
only the privileged can afford worrying about civil rights. "Your tolerance
toward gypsies is directly proportional to the distance between your house
and the closest Roma camp," goes a saying that is becoming popular right

In April elections, Maroni's Northern League scored an unprecedented success
among unionized blue-collar workers, previously considered the backbone of
the post-communist Left. "Why should I vote for the Lefties? They care only
for gays and gypsies, not for poor hard working people like me," said a Fiat
worker who gave only his first name, Luca, in an interview that was quoted
in all the major papers just after the elections. The Left indeed has
already lost many supporters on security issues. The previous, Democrat-led
government has been accused of making life easy for offenders. A 2006 law
known as "indulto" severely reduces prison sentences. Last year, a man
convicted of purposely killing his wife served only two days in prison. Many
citizens feel betrayed, and want tougher measures – perhaps such as the new
government is offering.

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