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A Chance for the Italian Roma

By Nina Verdelli

Last December, a mob of Italians set a Roma camp in the outskirts of Turin on fire. Why? Because a 16-year-old Turinese girl had accused two Roma of having raped her, and this was how her neighbors chose to show solidarity. But after she saw the images of the flames on TV, she confessed that she had lied; she had actually made love to her boyfriend but was too scared to admit it to her conservative family. Unfortunately, this is just the latest episode of a long series of abuses committed by state and non-state actors alike against the Roma in Italy.

For the past five months, Mario Monti’s technocratic government has ruled the country. The academic economist that came into power after the resignation of Italy's playboy Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a rare politician in Italy—a technocrat not involved in the country's usual partisan politics. This gives him a rare opportunity to address the plight of the Roma. But if he does not run again in 2013—and he’s not expected to—he will have only 12 months to deal with this controversial issue. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Roma, humanitarian and political concerns are difficult to reconcile, so Monti does not have a lot of time. Throughout the past decade, right-wing parties have capitalized upon anti-Roma sentiments to enlarge their electorate, and leftists have been too afraid to stand up for them. No one wants to lose votes.

Scattered throughout Europe, and with a population ranging from eight to 10 million, the Roma represent the Old World's largest and most despised minority. Since their arrival in Europe during the 14th century—presumably from North India—they have experienced multiple forms of discrimination and oppression, including torture, forced sterilization, expulsion, and even genocide during Nazi rule. To this day, vilification of the Roma persists all over Europe, Italy included.

Often living in extremely difficult conditions, the life expectancy of the Roma in Italy is 50 years (comparable to that of Cambodians and 32 years lower than the Italian average of 82), and their infant mortality rate triples the national 0.4 percent. They struggle with an 80 percent unemployment rate and an illiteracy rate that is below that of most developing countries. Most Roma lack identification documents, entitlement to the land they occupy, and access to health care and education.

Unwelcome in mainstream society, the Roma react by isolating themselves even more. They reinforce certain traits of their culture—such as illiteracy or nomadism—to accentuate their separation from the non-Roma, who are perceived as unjust and, thus, as deserving to be avoided. This reinforces the mainstream society’s negative perceptions of the Roma and only contributes to the Roma’s persecution.

This vicious cycle is easily broken. If given the opportunity, many of them would integrate into Italian society if they could also enjoy equal rights. When interviewed by The Guardian, an Italian Roma said, “People may say we are bitter and to blame for our own isolation, but we tell each new generation of Roma they will be included and accepted and each time it feels like a betrayal.”

In 1999, Italy denied them national minority status, while granting it to 10 other ethnic groups (Albanians, Aostans, Croatians, Friulans, Greeks, Ladins, Occitans, Sardinians, Slovenes, and South-Tyrolese German Speakers). This status would have entitled them to protection by international conventions (in particular, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Person Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, and the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities) and to benefit from domestic measures that facilitate the integration of minorities into Italian society.

The pretext for Roma exclusion is their lack of historical links to Italy. Curiously enough, according to the Interior Ministry, 60 percent of the 160,000 Roma residing in Italy are fully naturalized. The truth is, Italians have always demonstrated hostility toward these so-called “social parasites,” whose provenance is unknown, and whose lifestyle is not understood.

In a way, Italian policy towards the Roma is part of a pan-European trend. 9/11 has “securitized” state-minority relations all over Europe: Ethnic diversity is, once again, discussed in terms of national security instead of human rights. To make things worse, since 2008, economic hardship has further incentivized the exploitation of racism, and all too many politicians have capitalized on this opportunity.

In Italy, the growing xenophobia is reflected in the electoral success of the Lega Nord (Northern League), a far-right party, which, although small, captured the regional presidency in Piemonte and Veneto during regional elections in 2010. Throughout the years, they have attracted more support by stigmatizing the Roma (0.0026 percent of the entire population) as a security threat. Why the Roma? Mainly because they are stateless, and thus powerless to defend themselves. Italian institutions face no risk of hurting any diplomatic relations when uttering, “If you do not want Gypsies and delinquents in your house, be the master of your own home in a livable city and vote Northern League.”

Despite (or maybe thanks to) this propaganda, the Northern League obtained 8.3 percent of votes in the 2008 presidential elections, greatly contributing to the victory of Berlusconi’s coalition. Immediately after the elections, the new government passed a “security package” which criminalized illegal immigration and begging while legalizing the dismantlement of unauthorized camps, the fingerprinting of illegal Roma residents, and their repatriation to Central and Eastern Europe.

Following France’s deportation of the Roma in 2010, another wave of expulsions took place in Italy. Roberto Maroni (former Interior Minister and member of the Northern League) agreed with Gianni Alemanno (Rome's Mayor and member of the former neo-fascist National Alliance Party) to jump on the French bandwagon and continue the operations started in 2008. In this context, Maroni also forced Milan's former Mayor, Letizia Moratti, to revoke her decision to allot public housing to the Roma after their camps had been cleared.

In response to abusive camp raids and other violent reactions, hundreds of Roma protested in Rome, where they displayed the black triangles their ancestors had been forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps. Furthermore, anti-racist campaigners bombarded the Interior Ministry with their own fingerprints as a sign of dissent.

Berlusconi stepped down last fall, and Umberto Bossi, the founder of the Lega Nord, resigned a month ago because of corruption charges. But this is not enough for the Roma to raise their hopes. Forgotten by the left, they can easily become the next right-wing coalition’s scapegoat. Before the electoral campaign begins, Monti has the opportunity, and the moral duty, to do something. He could start by eliminating every form of legal discrimination, and then by recognizing them as a national minority. The Roma have suffered from xenophobia and oppression for long enough. Now, Italy can be the first to break this vicious cycle.

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Nina Verdelli writes for the Italian magazine AMICA.

(Photo courtesy of Marco Crupi

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