Plight of the Roma: echoes of Mussolini

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The compulsory fingerprinting of Italy's Gypsy population is the latest example of the country's increasingly repressive attitude towards minorities – and an ominous reminder of the policies of the former Fascist dictator. Peter Popham reports

Fingerprint the lot of them: the idea had the satisfying smack of firm government. Now the Italian government was doing something tough; something long overdue.

The Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, a leader of the rabble-rousing Northern League – close allies of Silvio Berlusconi on the government benches – has explained his next step in his assault on the "emergenza di sicurezza", the "security emergency": fingerprinting all Gypsies.

It was the only way, he told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday, for Italy to guarantee "to those who have the right to remain here, the possibility of living in decent conditions." For this purpose the Roma – those with Italian nationality and those without, EU citizens and those from outside the Community – will all have their fingerprints taken. And the rule will even apply to Gypsy children – for reasons that to many of Mr Maroni's supporters must have sounded obvious: "to avoid phenomena," as he put it, "such as begging". The new measures, he said, were indispensable "in order to expel those who do not have the right to stay in Italy".

For anybody not swept up in the wave of anti-Roma fury, the campaign has a strong whiff of Mussolini and Hitler about it.

The task of counting and identifying the residents of Italy, citizens or otherwise, who happen to belong the most despised minority in Europe is, in fact, already under way.

Giovanna Boursier, an Italian journalist, found one small camp where the count had already taken place on the furthest southern outskirts of Milan. "There is not even a bar where one could ask the way," she wrote in Il Manifesto, "but once you scramble up a hill you see the roofs of the huts. There are about 10 of them, along with the caravans, dotted around the outskirts, under flyovers and high-tension wires. Around 40 Roma lived here."

They told her that the police arrived at dawn, woke everybody up, surrounded the camp and flooded it with lights and then went from home to home, demanding identity documents and photographing them. All the residents were Italian citizens. It made no difference. "This wasn't a census," protested a Roma called Giorgio. "This was an ethnic register."

Fingerprinting was the detail they omitted – lacking, at that point, the power to do it. But Mr Maroni has now set about remedying that.

Italy's "security emergency" is a strange and distracting phenomenon which has been brewing up slowly for the past decade as economic growth slowed to a stop. It intensified dramatically with the admission of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU in January of last year, and now bulks so large that it was the biggest factor in Mr Berlusconi's election victory and continues to dominate the media. It led to the decision last week to allow police numbers in the big cities to be augmented by up to 3,000 troops.

The issue is strange and distracting because it does not seem to exist, either statistically or as a fact of personal experience. Crime is not a big deal in Italian cities. There is no epidemic of burglary, mugging, bag-snatching, rape. Italy remains a country where it is pretty safe to walk the streets. Yet the government is behaving as if this were Colombia. And Colombia with a very special difference: that the supposedly soaring rate of crime is the work of one particular ethnic group, known as "nomadi rom."

Gypsies or Roma are visible in Italian cities as in the rest of Europe, and their number has increased. In Rome your subway journey may be made slightly less enjoyable by their accordions and violins and the appeals of their begging. Your eyes may be offended by the sight of them fishing in the waste bins, or hauling stuff home for recycling. Rome is so badly policed that small, utterly miserable squatter camps have sprung up in many places. They are a disgrace – unhygienic, unaesthetic – and have no place in a civilised modern country. But as the source of a "security emergency"?

Giovanni Maria Bellu, a La Repubblica journalist and an expert on Italy's minorities, said the problem was one of misunderstanding. "Most Italians make no distinction between Italian Roma and those who arrived from Yugoslavia during that country's break-up," he said. "And many Italians think that 'Rom' is an abbreviation of 'Romanian' – and since the arrival of Romania in the EU there has been a large influx of Romanians. People conflate these separate things. There have been crimes committed by Romanians – and people confuse these with the Rom, and the Rom end up being blamed for everything.

"Security was the over-riding theme of the general election, which is why this conflated Roma-Romanian theme became so big, and a part of the left is very timid about confronting the problem. The security emergency itself is a myth: there has been no increase in the number of rapes, for example – in fact, the number has declined. But when a single case occurs it is splashed on the front page of certain papers for a double reason: it increases the climate of fear; and it damages the centre-left, which is perceived as being weak on security."

Italy's Roma paranoia spilled on to the world's front pages on 13 May, when a woman in a suburb of Naples called Ponticelli alleged that a Roma girl had tried to steal her baby. The community erupted in fury, and thugs belonging to the Camorra crime syndicates threw petrol bombs into the local gypsy squatter camp, driving out the inhabitants and burning the place to the ground. Suddenly there was no avoiding the fact: the Italian hatred for the Roma had taken a dramatic new turn.

But the origin was an ancient fear, rooted not in fact but legend. Mr Bellu said: "There is nothing in police records to support the idea that Roma have stolen babies. It's just a legend. But one that still has people in its grip."

Marco Nieli, the president of Opera Nomadi, the most important organisation representing Italy's Roma, said: "The first Roma arrived in Italy in 1400 and have been here ever since, and are Italians in every respect. The real problem is one of crass ignorance: if someone says that Roma steal babies, the political parties reflect and amplify this nonsense. This way all the problems are swept under the carpet."

Thomas Hammerberg, European commissioner for human rights, visited a big Roma camp in Rome earlier this month. "I visited Casalino 900 camp, where 650 or so Roma live," he said. "There was no electricity, no water. It was a very bad slum."

And the fear of the "ethnic register" was already rampant, he said, "due to what happened to them in the past in Germany and elsewhere. They also raised the question, why us? Why not others? Many of those in the camp I visited had been in Italy for 40 years; they came over from Yugoslavia, some of them still have problems with identity papers, squeezed between the old and the new country. If you've been in a country for 40 years, are you still a foreigner? This talk about fingerprints was another reminder that their status has never been settled.

"The basic problem of Roma is widespread in Europe: housing, health, education, employment, political representation... But for a long time in Italy the Roma have been a symbol of something that is unwanted.

"The Nazis and the Fascists used the same methods of singling them out in the 1930s. It's not surprising that they are frightened."

A pocket dictator and the Manifesto of Race

Racism is often seen as intrinsic to fascism, but the inventor of the ideology, Benito Mussolini, was brought around to the Hitler obsession with race late in his career and after a great deal of arm-twisting.

Jews had lived in Italy for centuries without persecution. The community in Rome, though confined to the historic ghetto area for many centuries, has the longest uninterrupted history of any Jewish community in the world. In Mussolini's Italy, upper middle- class Jews continued to live and prosper without persecution – until 1938.

In that year Mussolini introduced his Manifesto of Race, closely modelled on the Nazi Nuremberg laws, which stripped Jews of their Italian citizenship, the right of Jewish children to go to school and of adults to work in the government or the professions.

Traditional Italian tolerance and/or indifference towards Jews meant that many were sheltered during those years, but after the fall of Rome, when Mussolini moved to the town of Salo on Lake Garda and was set up by the Nazis as the pocket dictator of the Republic of Salo, deportations of Jews to the death camps began in earnest.

And what of Italy's Roma during the grim final years of Mussolini's rule? Some 1.6 million Roma died in Germany and elsewhere during the Holocaust, a proportionately greater genocide than that suffered by the Jews.

The history of their treatment under Mussolini is a subject that contemporary Italian historians have been loath to look into, according to Marco Nieli, president of the Italian Roma organisation Opera Nomadi.

"It's a fact that there were concentration camps for Roma in Italy during the Fascist period, and it's also a fact that thousands of Roma died in them of hunger, cold and over work," he claimed. "Studies are now under way to discover the extent of the suffering that took place."

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