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Italy's choice: risk from Roma vs Roma at risk

About the author
Marco Brazzoduro professor of sociology at the University of Rome

The legal and physical assaults which Roma people have experienced in Italy in May-June 2008 have caused outrage and perplexity in equal measure. What is the context of these attacks, why have they occurred, and what needs to be done to prevent their reoccurrence? This brief article addresses these questions from the perspective of a long-standing engagement with Roma issues in Italy and the countries from which many Roma people in Italy originated.

Marco Brazzoduro is professor of sociology at the University of Rome, La  SapienzaThe background

In Italy's capital Rome, there are about 15,000-20,000 Roma people (of a total of around 150,000 in Italy as a whole). The majority of these have Romanian citizenship; almost all the rest are from former Yugoslavia. There are also about 1,500 Roma and Sinti who have Italian citizenship. The great majority are very poor and live in camps, which are in effect ethnic ghettos. Only nine of these camps, hosting about 7,000 people, are under the authority of local councils; even these have a minimum level of facilities.

In 2007 police listed sixty-six illegal Roma settlements around the capital, which then underwent a systematic process of eviction. This entailed not moving people to better housing but rather wholesale destruction of their shacks, which left the inhabitants - including pregnant women and children - homeless. These Roma, who are no longer nomadic by choice, have become nomadic again by coercion. When they are evicted (often brutally) they just move to another spot where they patiently start again to build a sparse settlement.

The sites chosen are often hidden in small woods, in the hope of not being evicted again. I have visited these poor settlements: the shelter is composed of tents made up of branches and plastic canvas; there is no toilet, electricity or utilities. All this in the capital city of one of the richest countries in the world. The behaviour of the public authorities infringes basic human rights, especially of women and children. The civilisation of a country, after all, is measured by the way the most fragile people (handicapped, women, children, the poor, needy people) are dealt with. In this respect Italy is well down the ladder (see Emma Bonino et al, "Europe must end violence against the Roma", Financial Times, 4 June 2008).

Also about Europe's Roma in openDemocracy:

Delia Grigore, "The Romanian right and the 'strange' Roma" (28 July 2003)

Martin Kovats, "The politics of Roma identity: between nationalism and destitution" (30 July 2003)

Florin Botonogu, "The art of the possible: an interview with Florin Botonogu" (1 August 2003)

Julian Kramer, "Living on the edge: a Roma clan in Ostrava, Czech Republic" (1 August 2003)

Karl-Markus Gauss, "The Dog-Eaters of Svinia" (22 September 2006)

The reasons

Since the late 1980s, Italy has been affected by an unprecedented influx of migrants. Under successive governments, policies of reception and integration have been inadequate. The result is that a feeling of uneasiness has grown among Italian citizens especially in the outskirts of big cities already suffering from poor public services. The blame for worsening living conditions is often placed on foreigners, who thus come to play the role of the classic scapegoat. Roma are at the bottom of the social scale in this respect, even lower than other categories of migrants. They are (as always since the arrival of their ancestors in Europe from India) the first to be blamed and hated.

There is another, more recent factor in the identification of the Roma as a target of accusation: the way that Italy's media and political leaders have come to emphasise in their rhetoric the theme of "security". This is so often tendentious and misleading: for example, official statistics suggest that criminal offences have not increased in the last decade (moreover, Italy has one of the lowest murder-rates in Europe). Thus, in objective terms there is no reason for a campaign which highlights new threats to "security".

Italy's media and political leaders take little notice of such objective factors. Most media outlets draw attention to those crimes committed by foreigners and deliberately stress the nationality of the offender; while politicians campaigning for the election of 13-14 April 2008 election also played frequently on this theme. The victory of the rightwing coalition was in part a result, and has been followed by attempts to implement harsh measures against the Roma: the new government, as well as targeting Roma, is also exploring the possibility - against legal and practical obstacles - of deporting non-Roma European Union citizens (especially Romanians) if they are not able to earn a living in Italy (see "Rome v Roma, Economist, 22 May 2008).

Italy's establishment could in principle play an educational role towards citizens, communicating the true reality of things in an understated way - thus promoting a mood of reciprocal understanding. Instead they collaborate in spreading suspicion and hostility.

A Roma man, who has lived and worked in Italy for twenty years, told me that Italian people with whom he has a commercial relationship began to look differently at him, and for the first time to ask him what his origin was. These are but signals of the effect that the winning coalition (and, afterwards the new rightwing government ) has had in unleashing an insidious current of stigma and exclusion. This creates the potential for further attacks on Roma by vigilantes similar to those in the Napoli (Naples) suburb of Ponticelli on 14 May 2008. A momentum of violence and hatred, once created, is difficult to control - unless indeed the discriminatory rhetoric and measures are part of a hidden plan to build an authoritarian state, one that begins by clamping down on foreigners and continues by restricting everyone's civil liberties.

The solutions

The way forward is to introduce social policies in order to narrow the gap in economic and social conditions between Roma and the rest of the population, which in recent years has been widening. But before that becomes possible, the question of the legal status of many of the Roma needs to be addressed.

My own assessment suggests that around 80% of Roma people living in Italy before 1 January 2007 - the date Romania and Bulgaria entered the European Union - had no legal right of residence in the country. The arrival of many Roma from Romania after that date, which made this community the biggest in the country, reduced this percentage considerably. Many of the pre-existing Roma population in Italy originate in non-European Union countries in the former Yugoslavia (Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia); often, however, they arrived as many as thirty or forty years ago - long before the wars of the 1990s. This longevity does not seem to assist them - for they too are still considered to be irregular / illegal immigrants.

These Roma aspire to gain Italian citizenship in order to be eligible for civil and social rights. They cannot have it, but what is worse they are also eligible to be deported from Italy. A 40-year-old Romnì (Roma woman) told me: "I have been given two expulsion decrees but where am I supposed to go? To a country I deserted thirty-five years ago? To a country unknown to me whose language I have even forgotten?" Another woman in her 30s, originally from Bosnia, told me that in 2005 she was deported by plane from Italy to Belgrade. She did not know anybody there and she did not know the language - so in order to solve her basic needs she called her father in Rome via her mobile-phone and made him talk to a passer-by. A Roma man, who has lived in Rome for thirty years (yet according to the law is illegal) told me: "I consider myself to be more Italian than an Italian citizen who is 25!"

The social policies needed are in the area of housing, jobs and schooling. The provision of housing must overcome one of the strongest prejudices against Roma people - often deriving from simple ignorance: that they are by nature nomadic. This is no longer true, for only a tiny minority among them still wishes to follow a nomadic lifestyle. As a consequence they loathe being confined to so-called "nomadic campsites": these both contravene the Roma's own preferences and ways of living and become ethnic ghettos that reinforce stigmatisation (see "Europe's Roma: bottom of the heap", Economist, 19 June 2008).

The issue of employment raises another fierce prejudice among non-Roma about Roma people: that they do not like working because they prefer to steal. This is absolutely wrong: if some Roma steal it is because of a lack of alternatives. When I enter their camps one of the most frequent questions put to me is: "Can you find me a job?"

The issue of education is of outstanding importance because the rate of illiteracy among Roma is very high and the momentum to counter inadequate. Their widespread illiteracy contributes to deepening the Roma's marginalisation. In a complex modern society, the level of education needed even for everyday navigation is increasing all the time: those who cannot meet the demand for basic literacy and numeracy risk being cut off. The Roma's original culture was an unwritten one, so the effort is particularly demanding from both sides: from the Roma and from Italy's schools and educational establishment. But it and the accompanying policies are essential if Italy and the Roma are to move beyond this painful episode.

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