World News

Italian Minister Moves to Count and Expel Roma, Drawing Outrage

Posted June 19, 2018 6:21 p.m. EDT

ROME — He has compared the European Union to the Titanic, accused the left of supporting immigration to supply slave labor, and insulted migrants using any number of disparaging epithets. But Italy’s new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, went too far even for his allies this week when he announced that he would conduct a census of Roma people in Italy, a prelude to expelling those without valid residence permits.

“And Italian Roma? Unfortunately we have to keep them,” Salvini said Monday during an interview on a regional television station.

On Tuesday, he dug in his heels. “'Census’ of Roma and control of public funds. If the left proposes it, it’s fine, if I propose it, it’s RACISM,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “I’m not backing down, and am going forward. Italians first and their security.”

Reaction was immediate. Luigi Di Maio — leader of the Five Star Movement, coalition partner of Salvini’s far-right League party — said that a census on an ethnic basis was not constitutional, so “we can’t do it.”

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, in Berlin to meet with his German counterpart, Angela Merkel, was infuriated by Salvini’s remarks and said that the interior minister “had gone too far,” according to Italian news reports. The prime minister did not comment publicly.

The proposal for the census evoked distant but still-bitter memories of the racial laws against Jews and the Roma, instituted by Benito Mussolini’s government 80 years ago.

Salvini, leader of the League party, is considered the most powerful political figure in Italy — more so than the prime minister, a little-known independent who was chosen by the governing coalition to be the ostensible head of the barely 3-week-old government.

Best known for his anti-immigration views, Salvini made headlines worldwide recently by refusing to allow a ship that had rescued hundreds of African migrants from dinghies in the Mediterranean to dock at Italian ports. He declared that Italy would no longer be “Europe’s refugee camp.”

Though the League and Five Star are theoretically partners, Salvini has commandeered the political conversation, if not the agenda, veering toward right-wing, populist and nativist positions that have not always sat well with his allies.

Italian news organizations noted Tuesday that whenever Conte was about to step out on the international stage, as he did in Berlin on Monday, Salvini managed to steal the limelight. The interior minister’s comments on the Roma drew the first significant grumblings from his coalition partners, and Di Maio scrambled to have his voice heard.

“Italians have priority,” said Di Maio, who is minister for labor and economic development. “It’s fine to deal with problems related to immigration, but let’s start working on the problems of millions of Italians who can no longer eat.”

The Roma, also known as Romanies or Gypsies, are a people of South Asian origin who migrated centuries ago to Europe, where they have often suffered severe discrimination. Some have lived in itinerant communities, largely isolated from the societies around them, while many others have settled and integrated.

Carlo Stasolla, president of the Associazione 21 Luglio, which works to end the marginalization of Roma groups in Italy, said in an interview Tuesday that if Salvini wanted to conduct a census of the Roma, he need only read the annual reports that his association has been publishing for the last three years.

He would learn, Stasolla said, that “six out of seven Roma pay taxes,” most own homes or pay rent, and that only about 26,000 live in camps, “segregated areas” that were “created by previous right-leaning governments,” or in informal settlements, he said.

He said that more than 50 percent of the country’s Roma population, estimated at between 120,000 and 180,000 people, were Italian citizens. A large percentage of the rest were from Romania or the former Yugoslavia, and are considered stateless, “so they can’t be expelled,” he said.

Beyond Salvini’s threats, Stasolla voiced concern that the government’s stated agenda for the Roma — which includes closing irregular camps and removing children from Roma parents who do not send them to school — was moving toward “xenophobic and populist positions that could violate fundamental human rights.”

Santino Spinelli, a musician who is one of Italy’s best-known Roma performers, said he feared that Salvini’s statements could have bleaker consequences.

“Instigation to racial hatred starts with words, and gives people the impression that they are shielded from any consequences, so that anything could happen,” he said in a telephone interview.

“Many Italians don’t even know that the Roma were also victims of racial hatred during the Second World War, as the Jews were, and this becomes of greater concern with new fascist tendencies rising.”

Now that the interior minister had closed Italy’s ports to people escaping war and famine, he could increase his popularity by “hunting Gypsies,” Spinelli said. Last week, three white men shouting “Salvini! Salvini!” drove by two men from Mali and fired a compressed air gun at them, lawyers for the migrants said Tuesday. They said the incident, in Caserta, near Naples, had been reported to police, and that the victims, one of whom was hit, were frightened.

One of the lawyers, Ida Grasso, said a security camera near the site where the shooting took place might have captured the license plate of the car. “At least we hope so,” she added.

In February, a white gunman wounded six African immigrants in Macerata, in central Italy, in what the previous interior minister called a “display of racial hatred.” The suspect reportedly draped himself in an Italian flag and raised his arm in a Fascist salute before being arrested.

Italy’s Jewish community has also weighed in on Salvini’s latest move, issuing a statement that said that there was no justification for the “disturbing proposal” to register specific social groups, and “submit them to special security policies that are reserved for them alone.”

Salvini’s proposal to conduct a census “is worrisome and reawakens memories of racist laws and measures that were enacted only 80 years ago, but are sadly increasingly forgotten,” the statement said.

But Salvini’s openly aggressive attitude has clearly struck a chord. Many Italians posted comments on Salvini’s social media feeds praising his decision.

A survey published Monday by the Italian pollster SWG showed that in the three months since the election, when it won the largest number of seats, the League has gained in popularity.

Stasolla said he was concerned that Salvini’s populist message was taking root among Italians “who believe you can respond to complex issues with simple slogans that single out scapegoats.”

“This is the real drama,” he said, “that populism has infected broad segments of the Italian population at a speed we could not have anticipated.”