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Roma communities feel threatened more than ever before in Italy

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Maurizio Pagani

In the past months Italy has been in the news over increasing attacks and rising racial prejudice against its Roma and Sinti communities.

Opera Nomadi is the main organisation working with nomadic communities in Italy. Many of its members are Roma and Sinti. It runs projects on education, health, habitat and community relations in Italy's cities including Milan, Rome, Naples and Padova.

Matilde Ceravolo, MRG's Fundraiser, speaks to Opera Nomadi's Vice-President, Maurizio Pagani (pictured above), about the worsening situation for Roma in Italy.

What are your working relations with Italian local authorities?

Italian mayors tend to delegate the work with Roma communities to third parties, often NGOs. The problem is they don't involve or consult the communities themselves. Most of the work that Opera Nomadi does is about facilitating dialogue and cultural mediation.

This work has become more and more difficult recently. There are some distinctions between towns, depending on the political positions of the mayors, but there are generally strong contradictions in the social policies implemented by all parties. Concerning nomadic communities, the political and social context has been getting worse and worse during the last couple of years. 

Can you explain how the situation for Roma and Sinti communities is getting worse in Italy? What is causing this situation?

Since July, the government has been adopting discriminatory measures, at a level never seen in the past. Roma and Sinti communities feel threatened now more than ever before. We believe there is a serious risk of ethnic discrimination and that we are moving towards the design of discriminatory public policies.

However, this should not only be seen as part of an anti-nomadic wave. What is happening now is part of wider migratory policies. In the last years, political debate on migration has assumed strongly demagogic tones. Italy has been on the receiving end of massive migrations from Eastern Europe, mainly Romania, since that country joined the EU. Many of those migrants were Roma from Romania, who were only given the option to settle in camps on the outskirts of the cities, creating new slums. The presence of these Romanian Roma communities eventually created strong social conflicts in the suburbs, and this has recently attracted more attention to Roma and has turned into an increasing wave of racism.

Romanian Roma camp, Milan

Romanian Roma camp, Milan.
Paolo Poce

But the real reason why these explosive social conflicts occur is because the sudden migration from Romania has not been managed properly. There have been no emergency policies, let alone integration policies. Institutions have not facilitated the process, have offered no solution, and have ended up discriminating against migrants along ethnic lines. The social issues facing Roma have been dealt with as something different from the social welfare that other citizens are entitled to.

What is your opinion on the measures that the government is adopting, such as keeping records of all Roma and taking fingerprints of children?

We had previously denounced the Prefects of Rome, Milan and Naples being given the role of "Special Commissioners on Roma Emergency", with the task to implement a census of Roma population, arguing that this would not be a common population census, but one based on ethnicity… We were right.

Half of the Gypsy people in the country are Italian citizens holding the same documents as any other Italian citizen. Even so, as part of this census, they were requested to show their documents, which were photographed and kept in a special parallel archive, different from the civil register used for everybody else. Unfortunately, the Italian Red Cross is also participating in the census.

Concerning the fingerprints, although much has been written about it, for the moment this has happened in very few cases, with the exception of Naples. In Rome, the Special Commissioner was brave enough to declare that he refused to take fingerprints, unless it is an exceptional case, where it is otherwise impossible to identify the person.

What action is civil society, and Opera Nomadi specifically, taking to respond to this situation?

We immediately undertook some legal action. I am aware of two cases in Lombardy where those directly responsible for the finger printing (police and carabinieri) have been sued. Opera Nomadi is supporting an Italian Roma family by providing legal assistance for the case.

We have also decided to publicly denounce the discriminatory facet of this measure. We criticise the lack of effective public policies to tackle the problems of nomadic communities. We acknowledge that problems exist, serious ones, but so far we haven't seen any policy aimed at tackling problems around access to education, employment and housing for these communities. We have written to Milan's Prefect offering to meet and discuss all these issues. We are still awaiting an answer, and are still open to dialogue.

Civil society in generally has exercised critical pressure over decision makers. The "Roma-Sinti Federation", which includes representatives of every community, has been very active.

Roberto Maroni, Minister of Interior Affairs, is presenting the finger printing of Roma children as a humanitarian action. He declared that the aim is to give citizenship to children who have been "sold, abandoned, left to who knows who". Can you comment?

In Italy we have an immense problem of children born without citizenship. It mainly concerns Roma from the former-Yugoslavia, who have absolutely no identity documents or citizenship. They are not even granted a certificate of statelessness. We estimate that there are about 15-20,000 of them. Opera Nomadi could not but welcome adecision to grant them citizenship.

Unfortunately, what Mr Maroni suggests only concerns minors that have been victims of some sort of terrible violence and abuse, who have been taken away from parents by the tribunal, or who have no family. According to the Osservatorio Minori (Minor Watch), in 2007 there were 8,000 such cases in the registries (the actual number is clearly above that). Most of these cases are foreigners, but Roma are probably not even a few hundred. Many of those children come from Maghreb. They are put under the protection of the social services, but they lose that condition the day they turn eighteen. Then they are not even entitled to a work permit, and often kept without citizenship.

Romanian Roma camp, Milan

Romanian Roma camp, Milan.
Paolo Poce

In such a situation, that Mr Maroni is willing to grant them citizenship is certainly good news. Nonetheless, it must be clear that it is only a form of protection for a very specific group. It doesn't change the fact that the Italian law on citizenship needs radical reformulation. It is not acceptable that families that have been here for 4 generations are still unable to gain citizenship.

Two nights ago a Roma camp caught fire in Rome. The previous day the corpses of two Roma girls who drowned at sea were left lying neglected on a beach in Naples. Is this the tip of the iceberg of racism against Roma?

I think one must be very prudent with such allegations. In the same way as rejection of Roma has become much more visible, it is also true that a part of the media and civil society is too inclined to interpret every fact as a manifestation of racism. It is very important to verify the credibility of information before taking it for granted. For instance, there is no proof that the camp was set on fire on purpose. For the moment, it looks more probable that it was just an accident.

With regards to the case of the two girls who drowned. Unfortunately I believe that it is a symptom of our sick society. I don't believe that episode happened because of the girls' ethnicity. The same would have probably happened with anybody else. 

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