Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Italian Roma community is one of the largest ethnic minorities in Italy. Though the exact size of the community is uncertain, it is estimated that there are between 120,000 and 180,000 Roma in the country – a significant proportion of whom lack Italian citizenship. Many are concentrated in settlements on the periphery of cities, where they are at risk of eviction or targeted attacks.
The Roma community living in Europe descend from a population that spoke a derivative of Sanskrit, the praclito. Though the dates are uncertain, they are believed to have left the area between India and Pakistan around 1000 CE to come to Europe where they settled in starting from the Balkans. The first Roma probably arrived in Italy in 1392 as a result of the Ottoman and Serbian-Christian battle in Kosovo. By the middle of the fifteenth century, some communities of Roma had begun to settle in central Italy (Ferrara, Modena, Reggio and Finale Emilia). Nevertheless they faced continued discrimination and periodic edicts enforcing their expulsion.
Italy’s Fascist leader Benito Mussolini imposed a series of harsh measures on Roma after he took power in the 1920’s, with some subsequently deported to Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
More recently, large numbers of Roma migrated to Italy from elsewhere in Europe, particularly as a result of the war in the former Yugoslavia.
Despite the 482/1999 Law that protects linguistic minorities, the Roma community is not officially recognized, limiting the exercise of some political and cultural rights.
Against this background, the Italian government has long been criticized both for providing inadequate housing to Roma, as well as for its continuous record of forcible evictions. In 2016, there were an estimated 35,000 Roma living in decrepit and often dangerous camps at the edges of towns without access to sanitation, running water or other services. These settlements, besides being under constant threat of eviction by local authorities, have regularly been attacked by racist groups, with politicians themselves at times encouraging the violence. Following the announcement in March 2015 by Pope Francis of the 2016 Jubilee of Mercy in Rome – a major religious celebration expected to bring thousands of pilgrims and tourists to the capital – local authorities used the event as a pretext to carry out forced evictions of Roma settlements, which tripled to an average of nine evictions per month.
Evictions have continued since then. In September 2016, the Milan authorities closed an emergency shelter, leading to 38 people (including 15 children), the majority of whom were Roma, being left homeless. They were not provided written notice, nor were they given alternative accomodation. A few weeks’ later, two emergency shelters in Rome, housing primarily Roma, were closed – with only limited notice and alternative accomodation being offered. The European Roma Rights Centre noted that the alternatives were a camping site and a Roma-only shelter, which instead of a long-term solution simply drove the affected families into further segregation. Italy’s treatment of its Roma minority received international attention in 2017, when hundreds were rendered homeless with the demolition of the Gianturco camp on the outskirts of Naples. According to some estimates, 1,300 Roma were affected. The eviction followed months of threats and heavy police presence, so some camp residents had already fled the area. A small group, comprising 140 people, were rehoused in a container park sited between a cemetery, a motorway and an airport. Racist graffitti on the perimeter wall highlighted the group’s added vulnerability to the threat of violence in such an isolated yet readily identifiable spot; in fact, the containers had been built on a previous Roma settlement that had been burned down by arsonists. But the group housed there were still fortunate; other Roma families displaced from Gianturco had been forced to resort to living on a traffic island outside the train station. And in July 2018, the Italian authorities evicted more than 300 Roma from a camp on the edge of Rome, despite an injunction from the European Court of Human Rights to suspend the action and present plans to rehouse the community.
Statelessness is also a key issue for Italy’s Roma population, particularly for those who arrived as refugees during the conflicts of the 1990’s in former Yugoslavia. Numbers are uncertain. In 2008, an Italian faith-based charitable organization estimated that between 10-15,000 Roma in Italy are stateless. At this point, they may belong to the second or third generation, and simply never had the chance to acquire Italian citizenship or regularise their stay.
The widespread ostracization experienced by Roma has intensified since the appointment in June 2018 of right-wing politician Matteo Salvinia as Interior Minister. Salvini has stated that Italy’s new government is planning to carry out a census of the Roma community in Italy to assist with the deportation of undocumented residents. Salvini’s proposal was criticized as not only illegal, but also reminiscent of legislation passed under Mussolini targeting Roma.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in