Italy’s new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini called Monday for a census of the country’s Roma minority in order to deport those without Italian citizenship, sparking fears his inflammatory rhetoric could provoke further persecution and even attacks on the marginalized community.
Salvini, the leader of the far-right League who became interior minister and joint deputy prime minister earlier this month, told television station Telelombardia that he intended to order a register of the Roma, in order to deport those without proper papers. Those with Italian citizenship would “unfortunately” be allowed to stay, he said.
“I’ve asked the ministry to prepare a dossier on the Roma question in Italy,” he said. “Irregular [undocumented] foreigners will be deported via agreements with other countries, but Italian Roma unfortunately you have to keep at home.” Numbering about 130,000-170,000 in Italy, the Roma are a distinct ethnic and cultural group with their origins in northern India, and they've faced persecution for decades throughout Europe.
The minister’s remarks, coming amid a broader backlash against immigrants across Europe, sparked concerns from human rights groups that they could inflame public hostility to a persecuted community.
“These statements are extremely worrying,” Elisa De Pieri, a researcher at Amnesty International, told VICE News.
“It could potentially sow the seeds for increased hostility and increased attacks. It’s irresponsible because it taps into already high hostility,” she said. A Pew Research Center survey in 2015 found anti-Roma sentiment was substantially higher in Italy than in other European countries, with 86 percent of Italian respondents saying they held unfavorable views of the group.
De Pieri said Salvini's rhetoric “reminds us of dark times,” with overtones of the country’s fascist past, while the country’s center-left Democratic Party said the comments had echoes of “ethnic cleansing.”
There are an estimated 130,000-170,000 Roma in Italy, about half of whom are believed to have Italian citizenship. De Pieri said the group suffers from widespread discrimination, including hate crimes and forced evictions, making it difficult for many to secure permanent housing or regular employment. Tens of thousands live in squalid camps, some government-run and others illegal, which the European Commission warned Rome in 2014 seriously limited the fundamental rights of Roma.
Salvini, whose anti-immigration League has formed a populist government with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, has a track record of inflammatory comments about the Roma, having previously accused the minority of preferring crime to work. In 2015, following a deadly hit-and-run incident involving two Roma youths, he posted on Facebook: “Once we're back in the government, we will raze these damn Roma camps to the ground!”
De Pieri said Salvini’s comments were a continuation of the new minister’s hard-line campaign rhetoric against immigrants and minorities, rather than a constructive approach to solving the complex problems faced by the Roma community. She said the census would be unconstitutional, as Italian law banned any register of ethnic minorities, and that many Roma without Italian citizenship had the legal right to remain in the country. Many who had come from the former Yugoslavia were stateless, and entitled to protection, while others from Romania and Bulgaria were European Union citizens who had the right to freedom of movement within the bloc.
Salvini, whose tough anti-immigration stance led him last week to bar a boat carrying 630 rescued migrants from docking in Italy, issued a statement later Monday saying he did not plan to “take anybody's fingerprints,” but instead sought to investigate the situation of the Roma, and assess how European Union funds targeted at helping the group were being spent. His remarks even drew criticism from his co-deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement, who said that “if something is unconstitutional, it cannot be done.”
The Roma have long faced persecution throughout Europe, and were murdered in the hundreds of thousands by Nazi Germany and its Axis allies during World War II. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, up to 220,000 were systematically killed during World War II. Italy’s Jewish community on Tuesday condemned Salvini’s proposal, saying they recalled the anti-Semitic laws created by Italy’s fascist government leading up to the Holocaust.
There are already signs of the League's rhetoric fueling hostilities: On Tuesday, Italian media reported that two Malian immigrants had been shot with an airgun earlier this month by a group of boys chanting “Salvini, Salvini,” in the city of Caserta, southern Italy. In February, a former local council candidate for the League, Luca Traini, went on a gun rampage in the town of Macerata, wounding six African immigrants.
Cover image: A man carries his belongings and his dog as he leaves a Roma camp to be evacuated and demolished in Rome, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Angelo Carconi)