Apartheid Nomadology

Begging underground. Milan, January 2010.

Begging underground. Milan, January 2010.

Inflammatory statements by Italian politicians fall on fertile ground. Recent surveys indicate that Italians dislike and fear Roma, often on the basis of little or no experience with them. At the heart of Italy’s treatment of Roma is racism — the entrenched conviction, often unconsciously held and acted upon in ignorance, that Roma are strange, biological others who do not belong in Italy and whose presence in the country is unfortunate.

Roma are merely tolerated in Italy in the best of times, but today racism and xenophobia in Italy are at flood tide. Anti-Romani stereotypes are widespread and ingrained. In Italian lore, Roma are rumoured to have made the nails used to crucify Jesus, to steal children and to generally wreak havoc and evil. In Italian, there are many anti-Romani or stereotyping idioms.

For example, in the dialect of Rome, it is common to say, “sei proprio uno zingaro” (“you’re such a Gypsy ), to accuse someone of stealing, lying or generally being untrustworthy. In various regional dialects, telling someone that they “dress like a Gypsy” is a way of saying they need to wash or that they dress poorly.

Underpinning the Italian government’s approach to Roma is the conviction that Roma are “nomads.” In the late 1980s and early 1990s, ten out of the twenty regions in Italy adopted laws aimed at the “protection of nomadic cultures” through the construction of segregated camps. This project rendered official the perception that all Roma and Sinti are nomads and can only survive in camps, isolated from Italian society.

The “nomad” theory is used time and again as the justification for excluding Roma from responsibility for the sort of decision-making normally afforded adult human beings. As a result, many Roma have effectively been forced to live out the romantic and repressive projections of Italians; Italian authorities assert that their desire to live in flats or houses is inauthentic and therefore relegate them to “camps for nomads.” The Italian media uses “nomad”, “Gypsy” and “Rom” interchangeably, but “nomad” generally  appears in headlines.

Roma, weak and exposed, suffer  daily human rights abuses. Italian authorities have acted ineffectively to counter these abuses, and have failed even to provide a rudimentary legal framework within which such abuses could be redressed. On the one hand, legislation prohibiting racial discrimination per se appears to provide for inadequate remedies and has not been widely publicised.

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance concluded that, “In Italy there is no general legislation to counter racial or ethnic discrimination.” Apart from 1993 amendments to the criminal code (which address the dissemination of  racist speech and racially motivated violence), Italian law affords “little ammunition against racial discrimination or other outward forms of intolerance.” Immigration legislation adopted in July 1998 appears to provide limited protection against racial discrimination. However, the scope of the protection afforded therein is unclear and the remedies provided are inadequate.

In July 1999, a bill being debated by the Italian Chamber of Deputies on the protection of linguistic minorities garnered enough support for passage only after reference to Roma — and therefore legal protection for Romani language and culture — had been deleted. Similarly, after the Italian government and others had praised draft immigration legislation for granting legal non-citizens the right to vote in local elections, this provision was deleted from the law before it was finally adopted. The law does not authorise the imposition of criminal penalties in the event of a finding of unlawful discrimination.

While Article 1 of “Progetto di legge” No. 169, the initial proposal, submitted by Deputies Corleone, Boato and Ruffino, made explicit reference to the linguistic and cultural rights of the Romani minority, the version voted on by the Chamber on June 17, 1998, and sent to the Senate on June 18, 1998 (“Disegno di Legge” No. 3366), deleted any reference to Roma.

The law in its adopted form states, at Article 2, “[…] the Republic protects the language and culture of Albanians, Catalans, Germans, Greeks, Slovenes and Croatians, and of those who speak French, Franco-Provincial, Friulian, Occitanian and Sardinian.” There is currently no law in Italy which expressly protects the linguistic and cultural rights of the Roma minority.

On the other hand, the Italian government has not acted to ensure that what legislation does exist is effectively implemented in practice. The ambiguity and resulting inadequacy of Italy’s legislative norms on racial discrimination are compounded by the failure to ensure their effective implementation. Thus, notwithstanding the general constitutional provision on equality (Article 3), “there is no case-law on the subject of racism.” Furthermore, there appears to be no case law concerning the few legislative prohibitions against non-violent acts of discrimination which do exist.

The Italian government has yet to provide information to counter the widespread impression that most anti-discrimination norms in Italy are unused and unknown. Government officials, representatives of non-governmental monitoring organisations and members of the bar have expressed near-universal uncertainty about the provisions of the laws, the scope of their applicability, and the frequency with which they are in practice applied to concrete cases of discrimination.

In its Concluding Observations concerning Italy of March 1999, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) condemned the treatment of Roma in Italy. In particular, the Committee expressed concern “at the situation of many Roma who, ineligible for public housing, live in camps outside major Italian cities,” and stated that “in addition to a frequent lack of basic facilities, the housing of Roma in such camps leads not only to a physical segregation of the Roma community from Italian society, but a political, economic and cultural isolation as well.”

The committee further lamented “the continuation of incidents of racial intolerance, including attacks against foreigners […] and against Roma, […] which are sometimes not recognised by the authorities as having a racial motivation or are not prosecuted”; “reports of acts of violence and bad treatment by police and prison guards against foreigners and members of minorities in detention”; and “the apparent lack of appropriate training for law enforcement officials and other public officials regarding the provisions of the Convention.” The Committee also expressed concern that “Roma [are] not considered as a minority and thus would not benefit from the protection offered by [the] law.”

The will to expel Roma from Italy has grown, and prominent politicians put forward real proposals that police should be allowed to shoot at boats carrying foreigners in the Adriatic. Aggressive and abusive raids by police and other authorities have continued apace. Italian politicians have publicly expressed hate and been rewarded by popular support. The public has lent its support to parties offering messages of intolerance toward Roma and other groups.

Those Italian politicians who have refrained from anti-Romani speech have remained silent, possibly due to a keen awareness that the wind is blowing with those who hate. Moreover, responses from other European countries have been close to non-existent; while Europe has shunned Austria since the xenophobic Freedom Party entered the Austrian government, there has been little to no response to the rise of radical hate in Italy.

The present surge of Italian hostility towards foreigners and Roma is now regularly played out in abuses against Roma, whether in the form of disruptive and humiliating police raids, in which property and homes are torn to shreds and left in heaps of rubble, or in the form of offensive, degrading, racist speech by public servants, speech which scars all Roma in Italy and renders impossible a dignified life for Roma there. The time has come, finally, for effective international response to the Italian situation.

Adapted from the Campland: The Racial Segregation of Roma in Italy (2000) report. Published under a Creative Commons license.