Salvini is escalating war on Italy’s Roma community by deploying soldiers

Sending troops to vulnerable camps is feeding anti-Roma sentiment and emboldening the far right.

Jonathan Lee
Jonathan Lee
24 May 2019, 10.07am
Soldiers stationed outside a Roma camp in Tor Sapienza, March 2019.

In 2016, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right Italian party Lega, visited a Romani camp on the outskirts of Rome. At the entrance of the camp he was greeted by a small crowd chanting “bulldoze” and presented with a toy bulldozer, which he accepts with a grin. During his tour, Salvini stops to give an impromptu speech accusing the Roma inhabitants of being work-shy and vowing to close the camp. A man in the crowd tries to explain that Roma have been denied work and housing. But Salvini is insistent, responding: “You can’t live like this”.

Three years later, the camp, in the town of Tor Sapienza, is still standing, but it has recently come under the control of the military. In March, 39 armed soldiers were sent to the camp by Rome mayor Virginia Raggi, who thanked the Ministry of Interior, presided over by Salvini since 2018, and the Ministry of Defence for providing the troops.

Rosi Mangiacavallo, an Italian activist who has been monitoring the situation in the camps, said that there has been "a near constant military presence in the camp since March” and that residents are given “no warning of when soldiers are being sent in”.

Roma camps are all-but abandoned by the state and become unsafe to live in.

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The Tor Sapienza camp, just half an hour’s drive from the capital, is home to around 300 Roma, and is one of 127 formal camps in the country, according to a report from non-profit organisation Associazione 21 Luglio. For many years, the Italian government’s approach to Romani inclusion has been to place Roma in specially created, ethnically segregated camps, rather than regular social housing in mixed areas. Operating under the false assumption that all Roma are nomadic by nature, the authorities place Romani families, usually from Eastern Europe, into these so-called “nomad camps” on the edges of towns and cities, far from other people, and far from employment opportunities.

The camps are all-but abandoned by the state, left to increase in size beyond capacity, fall into disrepair, and become unsafe to live in. The 'toxic fires', which are the cause of much of the furore around the camp in Tor Sapienza, are set by families living in absolute poverty. In these poor living conditions, with little to no social support from the authorities, and in the absence of public waste collection, some Roma here must burn whatever they can in order to survive.

Some of the camps gradually become infamous; condemned by politicians and demonised by the media, until an order is finally given to forcibly evict the residents. When the big camps are demolished it normally hits the headlines: Gianturco, Naples in 2017, Camping River, Rome in 2018. Most of the families are made homeless, forced to build informal shantytowns on wasteland on the outskirts of cities. Others are relocated by authorities to a different government camp or social shelter, starting the cycle anew.

The assignment of soldiers to Romani camps outside of Rome is a result of an increase in personnel and resources for the government’s Safe Streets operation, a public security programme which uses Italian armed forces to combat crime in Italy. The programme, launched in 2008, was criticised at the time for being an ideological show of force, created solely for the purposes of advancing anti-immigrant and anti-Roma propaganda. Today, many of the 7,100 soldiers assigned to the operation are used to crackdown on immigration, administer migrant processing centres, and patrol immigrant areas of Italy’s cities.

"Unfounded, unmotivated and unlawful"

Operation Safe Streets was not the only policy which negatively targeted Roma during Silvio Berlusconi’s fourth and final term as prime minister. In 2008, Berlusconi declared a state of national emergency, dubbed the so-called “nomad emergency”, which signalled the start of his war on Roma and immigrants through police intimidation, illegal detentions, fingerprinting of children, forced evictions, and deportations. He justified the deployment of troops as a temporary crackdown on so-called “gypsy criminality”, but patrolling soldiers have since became a fixture of cities and towns across the country.

The use of the state apparatus to target and harass Roma lasted until 2011, when a decision by the State Council declared the government’s emergency security approach to be “unfounded, unmotivated and unlawful”. A court of cassation decision in 2013 reaffirmed this opinion, declaring the state of emergency as being against domestic laws as well as a plethora of international laws, not least the European Convention on Human Rights.

Roma are treated as a security issue, rather than as an assailed and marginalised ethnic minority.

The “nomad emergency” set a precedent with lasting consequences. Despite the emergency officially coming to an end, it has left a legacy of police raids and intimidation of Roma. The systematic use of (often illegal) forced evictions against Roma, without offer of alternative accommodation, became a common occurrence all across Italy. It was the beginning of a new kind of government policy. One which treated Roma in Italy as a security issue, an urgent danger to either be contained or removed, rather than as an assailed and marginalised ethnic minority.

The template set by Berlusconi, which saw the securitisation of Roma in Italy, proved to be an effective and long-lasting policy for right-wing populists needing a scapegoat to rally voters around. Berlusconi’s political rhetoric of safety and security, which accompanied the punitive measures carried out against Roma, is the same rhetoric used today by the interior minister, Matteo Salvini, and other politicians. Rome’s prefect, Paola Basilone, recently described the camps around Rome as a “real emergency” as justification for her decision to send soldiers in to police them.

“We are not deaf to the suffering of those who live near these villages” she said, ignoring the suffering of the Roma who have no choice but to live in squalid shanty towns on the edge of her city.

Anti-Roma discourse and far-right mobilisation

The language of the “nomad emergency” has come full circle, and so has the securitisation of Roma in Italy. When the language of defence and security are used to describe policies towards an ethnic minority, the ripples travel far in society, and the consequences can be difficult to contain once this happens. This is especially true under the current coalition government, whose policies towards ethnic minorities are increasingly influenced by far-right politicians like Salvini.

When politicians set the tone in securitising Roma the media follows suit, incorporating the language of threat and security into their daily publications and broadcasts. The resulting rise in hate speech, far-right mobilisation, and hate crimes throughout Italy cannot be wholly divorced from the discourse of anti-Roma policymakers.

The far-right Forza Nuova movement protest a housing centre for Roma families in the Torre Maura neighborhood of Rome, 2018.
The far-right Forza Nuova movement protest a housing centre for Roma families in the Torre Maura neighborhood of Rome, 2018.

From Berlusconi to the present day, politicians have invoked the rhetoric of nativism, fear-mongering, and the securitisation of Roma to cement the perception of the Romani other. Even the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, has weighed in on the demonising language. In an interview discussing the Italian government's plan for a citizenship income he said it "will end up in the pockets of Roma, of foreign citizens — from the EU and non-EU — and certainly not in those of many Italian citizens.”

Tajani’s dismissal of Roma as foreign and distinct from Italian citizens betrays the depth of institutional racism which still places Romani people firmly outside of the bounds of regular Italian society. It is this dehumanising language and depiction of Roma as perpetual outsiders which necessitates the government’s security approach to Roma policy. It justifies the need to manage the vague but ever-present threat to society posed by Roma. Meanwhile, far-right populists in the government such as Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini use increasingly sensationalist language to describe the issue of the 'Roma menace'.

These politicians always find a new radical solution to the eternal, so-called ‘Roma problem’. In 2008 it was the “nomad emergency”, in 2019 it is the proposed Roma census, and the threat to remove and assimilate children from Romani families. The latest publicity stunt of sending in the troops to guard the camps is yet another radical solution to the omnipresent ‘gypsy security threat’. But the radical new solution for the 'Roma problem' is nothing so radical at all – a continuation of the securitisation of Roma, the recycling of tired stereotypes and populist antigypsyism, and the steady creep towards fascism in Italy.

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