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20 June 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 3:51pm

The Italian far right won’t get a Roma census, but its anti-minority propaganda is working

Matteo Salvini’s proposal would violate the Italian constitution, but it will also help his party gain support. 

By Francesco Zaffarano

A few days after refusing permission for the MSF ship Aquarius to dock in Sicily after it rescued 629 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, Italian Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini is again stoking controversy. This time it is for proposing to create a register of Roma population in Italy, in order to expel those deemed to have no right to stay in the country, while saying that “unfortunately, we must keep Italian Roma at home”.

After a first wave of criticism for his proposal, which would blatantly violate the Italian Constitution, Salvini said: “Our intention is not to file or take fingerprints of anyone, our goal is a survey of the situation of Roma camps”. Luigi Di Maio, leader of the 5 Star Movement and Salvini’s ally in the government, was among those who criticised the Minister of the Interior in the first public dissent between the two leaders since the government’s birth.

Salvini, leader of the far right party Lega, is the latest in a long series of politicians who have promised action towards what is one of the most discriminated minorities in Europe – and one which suffers from a particularly hostile environment in Italy.

A 2015 survey by the Pew Research Centre showed that Italy is the EU country with the largest prevalence of unfavourable opinions towards Roma people:

“Anti-Roma views are particularly prevalent among Italians (86 per cent unfavourable) and the French (60 per cent).

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“Meanwhile, more than half in Spain (58 per cent), the UK (54 per cent) and Germany (52 per cent) voice a favourable opinion of the Roma. The lowest favourable ratings were in Italy (9 per cent), France (39 per cent) and Poland (41 per cent)”.

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In recent years Italy has been severely criticised for violating the human rights of the Roma population, who often live in inhumane conditions inside the so-called “gipsy camps”.

What Salvini forgot to mention is that some of these camps have been built and are owned by the state, following a law signed by Roberto Maroni, a fellow member of the Lega and a former Minister of the Interior during the fourth centre-right government of Silvio Berlusconi, between 2008 and 2011.

In 2008 Maroni proposed a Roma register and the collection of fingerprints from all Roma camp inhabitants, minors included. The proposal prompted the intervention of the Italian Data Protection Authority, the European Parliament and the United Nations. The initiative was almost universally criticized and has never been implemented.

However, in May 2008 the government issued the so-called “nomad emergency decree”, which allocated €30 million to build public camps and demolish some of the unauthorised ones in Rome. In 2011, another €60 million was allocated with the same purpose in five Italian regions: Lazio, Campania, Lombardy, Piedmont and Veneto.

One of the most disturbing interventions produced by the “nomad emergency decree” concerns the camp known as La Barbuta, which in 2009 was converted from an illegal camp to a village made of containers where hundreds of people were forcibly transferred. In 2012 Nils Muižnieks, who was at that time Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed concerns about the serious living conditions of the inhabitants of La Barbuta, after visiting it and two other camps in Rome.

For Salvini, however, it is easier to surf the stigma and talk about emergency than to intervene to resolve what is a real housing crisis for a minority of people in Italy.

According to the data collected by Associazione 21 Luglio, an NGO which advocates for Roma rights and against their discrimination in Italy, Roma people in the country are estimated between 120,000 to 180,000. About 26,000 people live in formal and informal shantytowns or in monoethnic areas. They represent just 0.04 per cent of the Italian population. Data about people living in the camps shows a slights decrease by 2,000 compared to 2016.

The other issue which Salvini’s propaganda does not mention is that the vast majority of the Roma population live in Italy because they have a right to. According to Associazione 21 Luglio, in fact, 43 per cent of Roma residents in public camps are Italian citizens, while there are 9,600 Roma from the former Yugoslavia and about 30 per cent of which are at risk of statelessness. 86 per cent of the inhabitants in unauthorised settlements are from Romania and are entitled to live in Italy because both countries are members of the European Union.

Salvini knows that his proposal cannot be realised. The Italian Constitution explicitly forbids any kind of discrimination on the basis of “sex, race, language, religion, political opinions, personal and social conditions”. That constitution was approved after the fall of the fascist dictatorship, which began persecution of the Jews with racial laws in 1938. Salvini’s words evoke those racial laws and the persecution suffered in the 1940s by the Roma population, which faced the same deportation to concentration camps inflicted on Jews.

What Salvini does know is that attacking a marginalised minority like the Roma can gain him support. He is also taking advantage of the situation to overshadow once more his ally, the 5 Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio. In this way, Salvini is stressing that the populist government is de facto a far-right government.

The latest polls released by TG La7 shows that the Lega is now the first party in Italy with 29.2 per cent of public approval. It has surpassed for the first time the 5 Star Movement, which stands at 29 per cent. Its support is up from the election on 4 March, when the Lega won 17 per cent of the vote. For this reason, some people in the 5 Star Movement and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte fear that the Minister of the Interior is trying to force a clash with his government allies in order to call for new elections and take advantage of his momentum.