As a wave of xenophobia sweeps the country, immigrants find themselves on the run, fearing 'another Yugoslavia'
From Wednesday's Globe and Mail
May 21, 2008 at 4:26 AM EDT
ROME — Janos Koztarsasag fears for his safety for the first time since he arrived in Italy in 1989, and his bags are packed. He and his dog, Rex, are clearing out.
The genial 62-year-old Hungarian has no Italian documents and no job, beyond selling secondhand books from his perch on the ancient Milvio bridge in northern Rome. A few weeks ago the police shut down a Roma camp on the banks of the Tiber River, below the bridge.
Since then, the area has been thick with police. The caravan on a nearby street that was his home was towed away.
Mr. Koztarsasag has not been threatened by the police in the Italian crackdown on alleged illegal immigrants, most of them Roma, often called Gypsies, who have moved from Eastern Europe. But he's not pressing his luck. "I'm leaving for France tonight," he said, producing his train ticket and the dog's vaccination card. "I'm afraid."
His Romanian friend Nico, who lives in a tent in a Roma camp but insists he is not a Roma, said he's plotting his escape too. Both men said racism is suddenly alive in Italy and that ethnic tensions could turn the country into "another Yugoslavia."
The Italians are fearful too. A recent poll found 68 per cent of Italians want Roma kicked out of the country. Many are also happy to see any jobless or illegal Eastern European and North African expelled or moved from squalid urban camps to the countryside.
They blame the Roma for crimes from the petty to the violent and, in extreme cases, have resorted to crowd retaliation. Last week several hundred Italians used sticks and gasoline bombs to attack a Roma camp in the eastern suburbs of Naples. They went in after a teenage Roma girl was accused of trying to kidnap a baby (some reports said she may have been playing with the baby). "Out, out!" they yelled, according to local news reports. "You're dirty and smelly and rob babies."
Italy's anti-immigrant campaign has been building for some time, as the European Union adds new members. Romania and Bulgaria were admitted in January. Citizens of 27 countries are free to live where they wish, though many countries, including Italy, still require work permits and related documents.
As the number of Roma increased in Italy - as many as 1,000 a week arrive in Rome, according to some estimates - the media and the politicians, including some centre-left politicians, demanded a crackdown. "The Invasion of Nomads," was one headline last year in the Corriere della Sera, Italy's top daily newspaper. Last spring the municipalities of Rome and Milan issued "security" pacts that appeared to allow the police to run roughshod through Roma camps and shantytowns.
The tension has mounted since then. Last autumn in Rome, the particularly savage slaying of Giovanna Reggiani, the 47-year-old wife of an Italian naval captain, sparked something close to anti-immigrant panic. The man accused of robbing, sexually assaulting and beating her to death was Romanian.
A few days later the Italian president signed an emergency decree to allow prefects (the local Interior Ministry representatives) to expel EU citizens if they are judged public security threats. About the same time, Walter Veltroni, the former mayor of Rome who is now national opposition leader after failing to defeat Silvio Berlusconi in the recent national election, said the Roma are guilty of 75 per cent of the city's petty crime.
EU Employment Commissioner Vladimir Spidla yesterday reminded Italy that all European citizens must be treated equally, and warned the government not to discriminate against Roma people.
Maurizio Pagani, the vice-president of Opera Nomadi, a volunteer group that arranges jobs, housing and education for the Roma, said the rise of the political right and the centre-right in Italy is bad news for the immigrants in general and the Roma in particular. "It all comes from the right and their call for security," he said.
Mr. Berlusconi's centre-right movement owes its election victory in part to its get-tough policy on immigrants. The virulently anti-immigrant Lega Nord (Northern League) is part of Mr. Berlusconi's ruling coalition and its leader, Umberto Bossi, was made Minister of Institutional Reforms and Federalism. "This operation against illegal immigrants is what people want," Mr. Bossi said recently. "They ask us for security and we have to give it to them."
Rome's new mayor, Gianni Alemanno, the founder of the Social Right party, has joined the anti-immigrant crusade too. He has vowed to dismantle the "nomad camps" where the Roma live in "third-world conditions." In a visit to a camp this week, he said "there are no words to describe what I saw."
Afraid that Italy is in the grip of xenophobic fervour, the human-rights and Roma assistance groups are going on the offensive. Mr. Pagani, of Opera Nomadi, said the campaign against the Roma has gone way too far, even though he admits some are guilty of "micro criminality." He said not all Roma can be lumped together; half of the 160,000 or so of the Roma in Italy are Italian citizens and another 25,000 are war refugees from the former Yugoslavia.
Last week the European Roma Rights Centre, a human-rights group funded by George Soros, the New York hedge fund manager and philanthropist, sent a letter to Mr. Berlusconi demanding "urgent intervention by Italian authorities to adequately protect Roma in the country from further acts of racist aggression and to diffuse the climate of anti-Romani hostility."
Tara Bedard, the ERRC's programs co-ordinator in Budapest, said there are no data backing up Mr. Veltroni's assertion that 75 per cent of Rome's petty crime is committed by the Roma, and scant evidence that the expulsions were legally carried out. "Expulsions are allowed but a legal process has to be followed," she said.
Italy's war against the Roma is now being criticized across Europe.
Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, Spain's Deputy Premier, said the Spanish government "rejects violence, racism and xenophobia, and therefore cannot agree with what's happening in Italy." Italy's Foreign Minister dismissed the criticism as unwarranted interference in domestic affairs.
In Italy, however, there is no warning from the mainstream Italian media or the top politicians that the crackdown is out of control.
"Realistically, this could get worse when you have a government in Italy promoting the negative image of the Roma," Ms. Bedard said.