World Focus: Italians and the Gypsies – an old prejudice revived

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The Independent Online

The decision by Silvio Berlusconi's government that all Italian citizens should now be fingerprinted, and that from 2010, all national identity and residence cards will carry fingerprints seems bizarre. There is no urgent reason for such an elaborate programme and fingerprints are out of date as an identification method.

The real reason for the decision, which received initial assent from a parliamentary committee on Wednesday, is to enable the government to continue taking the fingerprints of Roma or Gypsies who live in camps, both legal and informal, on the outskirts of many Italian cities, a policy which bears comparison with the worst days of Benito Mussolini.

A month ago the Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, a member of the anti-immigrant Northern League, announced that all residents of such camps, including children, would be fingerprinted – a decision that prompted outrage inside Italy and beyond. Unicef, the Council of Europe, the Catholic Church, and Amnesty International have condemned the initiative, one that, despite being a clear violation of EU law, is already under way in the Naples area. This week's decision, which still has to be signed off by parliament, means that under cover of a national programme, the fingerprinting of the residents of the so called "nomad" camps can continue without interruption.

But why fingerprint the Gypsies? The most significant issue in the general election campaign this spring was what was called the "security emergency": the perception by Italians that violent crime was rapidly on the increase, and that it was the fault of foreigners.

In fact crimes of violence are not soaring, but there has been a large rise in legal and illegal immigration in recent years. As in other parts of Europe this has been accompanied by a strong anti-immigrant groundswell which finds focus whenever a foreigner is accused of some heinous crime. Gypsies are not proportionately more to blame for these crimes than other groups.

But an ancient prejudice against Gypsies (who have lived in Italy since the 14th century) has been fuelled by paranoia about security in general, and a common confusion between rom (Roma) and rumeni (Romanians) who as EU citizens, have moved into Italy in large numbers since Romania's accession to the union in 2007.

Mr Berlusconi's government seems determined to exploit and amplify the hysteria. There is little to suggest that the government will desist from seeking to gratify its political constituency with further measures of this kind.

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