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Italy's Gypsies suffer discrimination and prospect of draconian curbs
Monday July 21 2008
Italian attitudes towards the country's Roma population were in the spotlight again today after holidaymakers were photographed continuing to sunbathe close to the bodies of two drowned girls from the minority group.Who are Italy's Roma?
An estimated 150,000 Roma, or Gypsies, live in Italy, many of them in encampments on the edges of cities such as Rome and Naples. Some of the camps are unofficial and badly rundown.
The Roma are a distinct ethnic and cultural group with their origins in northern India. They have lived throughout Europe, particularly in the centre and south, for many centuries.
Just over 40% of the country's modern Roma, including an estimated 30,000 descended from 15th-century settlers, ossess Italian passports. The rest are more recent arrivals, many coming from Balkan nations during the 1990s.
After Romania joined the EU at the start of 2007, an estimated 10,000 Romanian Gypsies came to Italy, forming part of a Romanian population in the country believed to total about 500,000.What are public attitudes in Italy to the Roma?
Many people are openly hostile to the Roma, accusing them – especially the newer arrivals – of avoiding work in favour of theft and other crime and shutting themselves off from mainstream Italian society in squalid, illegal camps. Rights groups working with Roma people say they face severe discrimination, some of it tied to more general anti-Romanian and anti-immigrant feeling.
One recent newspaper survey found 68% of people wanted all Italy's Gypsies expelled, whether or not they held Italian passports. Another poll said more than three-quarters of people want unauthorised camps demolished.
In May, a mob of vigilantes torched a Roma camp in Naples after the arrest of a young Gypsy woman accused of trying to abduct a child.How has the Italian government acted?
Critics say Silvio Berlusconi, the recently re-elected Italian prime minister, has exploited anti-Roma feeling for political ends.
His election campaign promised a severe clampdown on "Roma, clandestine immigrants and criminals" and his coalition's candidate for mayor of Rome pledged the expulsion of "20,000 nomads and immigrants who have broken the law".
Other politicians have gone further. The head of the rightwing, anti-immigrant Northern League party, Umberto Bossi, argued the attack on the Naples camp was understandable, saying: "People are going to do what the political class cannot."What is the government proposing?
Berlusconi's interior minister, Roberto Maroni of the Northern League, caused controversy last month by proposing a plan to fingerprint all Roma living in camps, including children.
He said this would make it easier for authorities to identify child beggars and remove them from their parents, as well as to expel illegal residents.What has been the reaction to this?
Italian civil liberties groups have expressed outrage, with one Jewish community leader saying the measure could eventually lead to "exclusion from schools, separated classes and widespread discrimination". Earlier this month, the European parliament voted to urge the Italian government against the measure.
However, Italy's legal system has already indicated there is nothing to stop discrimination against Roma. In a ruling handed down earlier this year, but only recently reported, the country's highest appeal court ruled in the case of six people accused of anti-Gypsy racial propaganda that it was acceptable to single out Roma on the basis that they are thieves.
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008