Roma people imprisoned at Auschwitz concentration camp (photo: Roma in the Czech Republic)
Related: Romani group’s Holocaust lawsuit against IBM in Swiss courts could lead to $12bn claim by Roma throughout Europe
The Times | Jul 5, 2008
Richard Owen in Verona
“This is like the Shoah, the Holocaust,” says Vanda Colombo as her 11 children splash around in an inflated paddling pool in the searing heat of a Gypsy camp on the outskirts of Verona. “The Nazis exterminated Gypsies as well as Jews, and this kind of discrimination is how it started. If they come here and try to fingerprint our children we will stop them.”
With the help of the Italian Red Cross (CRI), the centre-right Government of Silvio Berlusconi is about to start fingerprinting Roma people – including children – as part of its promised crackdown on crime.
The process could start tomorrow, although the deadline may slip after accusations of xenophobia from Unicef, the European Commission, the Catholic Church and the Italian Left.
The idea, according to Roberto Maroni, the Interior Minister and a leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, is to take a census of Italy’s Roma population “so we can tell who is entitled to be here and who is not”. Those with the right to stay could then live “in decent conditions” rather than “with rats”, Mr Maroni said. The rest would be deported.
Gypsies identified in the census will receive a card giving them access to Italy’s social and health services, but Roma parents who keep their children out of school and send them to beg on the streets will lose custody.
“Perhaps the Left dreams of an Italy populated by lots of Oliver Twists exploited by the Fagin of the day,” Osvaldo Napoli, a centre-right deputy, said. “But we are not in the Victorian England of Dickens, and children cannot wander abandoned through the streets of our cities.”
The criticism has been fierce. Famiglia Cristiana, Italy’s most widely read Catholic magazine, condemned the scheme this week as racist and indecent. Maria Rita Verardo, head of the Association of Juvenile Court Magistrates, called it “an odious form of racial discrimination”.
Carlo Mosca, Rome’s chief of police, said that he was against fingerprinting Roma children under 14, who “might be photographed instead”. Adults would only be fingerprinted if they were unable to produce a passport or residence permit, he added.
The Right blames much of Italy’s street crime on the Roma, in particular on children sent out by adults to rob and steal. The fingerprinting drive, expected to last until October, will begin in Rome – where there are an estimated 9,000 Gypsies – but then widen to other cities.
There are an estimated 152,000 Roma in Italy in 700 camps – which Mr Maroni hopes to dismantle. Forty per cent have Italian citizenship but the rest are immigrants, many from Romania and the Balkans. In Verona this week eight Roma men and women of Croatian origin were arrested for allegedly using children in hundreds of robberies throughout northern Italy. Marco Odoriosio, who led the Verona police operation, said that one of the arrested women had a record of 123 detentions for theft in different towns, using 93 different aliases. The culprits were caught when their mobile phone calls to the children giving them instructions on what to steal, and where, were intercepted (a practice Mr Berlusconi, paradoxically, is trying to restrict.)
Verona, the orderly and prosperous city of Romeo and Juliet, is currently full of tourists enjoying the summer open-air opera season at the Arena, its celebrated Roman amphitheatre, and a month-long Shakespeare festival.
Out beyond the old city walls, on the baking asphalt of one of the vast car parks adjoining the football stadium, you will find a makeshift Gypsy camp, washing hanging from camper vans and shacks.
“Our children do not steal,” Mrs Colombo insists. “The older ones go out to do honest work. We are Italian Gypsies, not foreigners. We are scapegoats.”
Her husband, Marziano, sees nothing wrong with the idea of a census but bridles at the fingerprinting plan. He blames “Gypsies who have come here from the Balkans and Romania. They have given us all a bad name.” He says he used to make a living from running a sweet stall at travelling fairs, “but because of constant harassment we cannot even do that any more”.
Flavio Tosi, the Mayor of Verona and a Northern League member, agrees that “there are Gypsies who want to live a normal life, but those who live in Gypsy camps become habitual criminals and they force their children to become criminals too. Then when the children grow up they, in turn, force their children to enter a life of crime. It is a vicious circle which must be broken.”
This week it emerged that the Court of Cassation, Italy’s highest appeal court, had overturned the conviction of Mr Tosi and five others for “racial discrimination” for declaring in 2001 that “the Gypsies must be ordered out because wherever they arrive there are robberies”. Mr Tosi had shown prejudice but was not guilty of stirring up racial hatred, the judges ruled.
Mr Tosi’s move against Gypsy crime in Verona after he won office a year ago was a harbinger of the national swing to the Right in April, when elections brought Mr Berlusconi back to power with far-right allies on a law- and-order platform. Mr Berlusconi is accused by the Opposition of exploiting fear, and of rushing through security laws designed to save himself from corruption charges rather than deal with the causes of street crime.
“The only way to solve the Roma problem is to find them jobs, housing and education,” says Tito Brunelli, a former Verona councillor in charge of social policy and immigration, who set up a Roma camp on a disused airfield – later closed down by Mr Tosi. Mr Brunelli, a Catholic activist, says that he was dismissed for being “too tolerant” toward the Roma and trying to bring them into contact with Italians.
He suspected that Gypsies were being identified only “so that they can be expelled. Some Gypsies rob – but so do some Italians”.
Massimo Barra, the head of the Italian Red Cross, insisted that the aim was to integrate Roma people into Italian society. If children were fingerprinted, it would be done “as a game”, he said. Mr Barra said the Red Cross “always respects human rights. We are building bridges, not walls.”
Mr Maroni has said he is unfazed by the row, which had been drummed up by hypocrites. “There is no breach of European rules, or of the charter for childhood rights, no violation of any regulation” he told parliament.
Franco Frattini, the Foreign Minister, said: “We are not talking about raids against Roma, only an attempt to identify those living in our country. These things are done by many other countries in Europe without causing any scandal.” For Mrs Colombo, the census has echoes of Europe’s darkest days. “When we see a uniform, we feel terror,” she said. “It’s in our blood. We feel threatened.”
— The Roma left northwest India in the first millennium AD, spreading to most of Europe by the 16th century
— Some scholars believe that the word Gypsy, deriving from Egyptian, was adopted by the Roma people to conceal their origin and avoid persecution
— Estimates of the number of Roma killed in the Holocaust range from 220,000 to 500,000
— In 1957 the Romany language and Romany music were banned from public performance in Bulgaria
— The practice of encouraging or enforcing the sterilisation of Roma women was officially ended with the fall of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in 1990
— An estimated 100,000 Roma refugees fled from Kosovo in 1999
— In Naples camps were evacuated in May after attackers set homes on fire and residents protested against the alleged kidnapping of a baby by a Roma woman