Italy’s interior minister evokes a dark past by vowing to expel Roma people

Interior minister Matteo Salvini’s crusade against Roma causes an outcry.
Interior minister Matteo Salvini’s crusade against Roma causes an outcry.
Image: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
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Italy’s populist government, only in power since the beginning of June, is already taking steps to implement its nationalist agenda. First, it turned away a rescue vessel loaded with over 600 refugees. This week its interior minister said he wants to take a census of the country’s Roma minority—and throw out those who don’t have citizenship.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party, said he had asked officials to prepare a dossier on “the Roma situation.”

“We will try to understand how we can intervene, doing what years ago was called the census, we can now call it the registry…to understand what we are dealing with,” Salvini told a regional broadcaster (video in Italian). “The Italian Roma, unfortunately, you have to keep in Italy.”

The Roma are already widely discriminated against, living often in poverty on the fringes of society, with little access to government benefits and services. Salvini highlighting them as a menace to society is a chilling reminder of how Italy has persecuted the Roma in the past.

How Mussolini targeted the Roma

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini enacted laws against the minority in 1938, and an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Roma were killed in the Nazi genocide of World War II. More recently, in 2008, president Silvio Berlusconi declared a “Nomad Emergency,” giving the local authorities emergency powers to monitor Roma in camps, harass them, and evict them under the guise of national security.

Elisa De Pieri, Amnesty International’s Italy researcher, said Salvini’s comments tap into existing hostility. “Anti-Roma feelings were already very high in Italy, and they tend to be the favorite scapegoat of the League and other right-wing parties,” De Pieri said. “The Roma have been subjected to a disproportionate amount of hate crimes and hate speech in the past decade.”

She notes that the Berlusconi “emergency” helped to put the blame on them for rising crime, despite no evidence.

A backlash against Salvini

Salvini was slammed by Luigi di Maio, leader of the Five Star Movement, who called the idea of an ethnic census “unconstitutional.” Former prime minister Paolo Gentiloni tweeted: “Yesterday refugees, today Roma, tomorrow guns for all. How hard it is to be bad.”

Salvini, whose nationalist views resonate with many in Italy, vowed not to back down, tweeting that if the left proposed a Roma census, it would be fine, but “if I propose it, it’s RACISM.”

About 180,000 Roma people are estimated to live in Italy, about half of them citizens. Amnesty said that the Roma to whom Salvini has referred are the 26,000 or so who live in camps, noting that “there is already a lot of data available on where they are and how they live.”

“This census of Roma people in Italy was tried already tried in 2008, and that census, together with other measures linked to that emergency, were declared unlawful in the courts,” said De Pieri. “It’s simply illegal under the Italian constitution and, of course, under EU law.”