Italy's Roma people at risk from Matteo Salvini's master plan

Despite goading Italy’s minorities and embracing hardline policing policies, the country's far-right interior minister is on the rise

epa07772446 Italian Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini arrives to attend a memorial ceremony for the victims on the first anniversary of the Morandi highway bridge collapse, in Genoa, northern Italy, 14 August 2019. The motorway bridge partially collapsed on 14 August 2018, killing 43 people.  EPA/LUCA ZENNARO
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On the eve of Roma Holocaust Memorial Day, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini launched an online tirade against a Roma woman living in Milan. “Be good, dirty gypsy,” the leader of Italy’s far-right League party tweeted. “Be good, for the bulldozer is arriving soon.”

Mr Salvini was responding to a threat from a woman who said she had a bullet for him because of his plans to clear Roma camps across Italy. The right-wing politician used the slur to refer to the persecuted ethnic group, hundreds of thousands of whom were killed during the Holocaust.

Before the year is over, Mr Salvini may be Italy’s prime minister. Not long after, that Roma woman’s house may well be demolished. If the far-right figurehead’s 14 months in government show anything, it is that he plans to remake Italy according to his own authoritarian vision.

Mr Salvini, who is also Italy’s interior minister, has granted the police greater power and protection when dealing with migrants and protesters, while the country’s media elite have been put on notice by the minister and his allies. At the same time Italy’s minorities, whether Roma who have lived in the country for decades or recent migrants, have been put under increasing pressure to leave.

Last month Mr Salvini issued what is known in Italy as a circular to all prefects across the country asking them to prepare maps of their Roma, Sinti and Camminanti settlements. The purpose of the survey and mapping was to give a clear outline of where illegal camps are situated and “prepare a plan of clearances”.

Official figures put the number of Roma in Italy at 170,000. Most have integrated into Italian society but 40,000 still live in camps. Although these camps are conspicuous, the Roma population is just a fraction of Italy’s 60 million inhabitants. Half of all Roma are also Italian citizens. The other half hail from elsewhere in the EU or the former Yugoslavia. Mr Salvini has admitted he will not be able to expel those who are Italian.

Aurora Sordini, a lawyer and the general secretary for 21 Luglio, an Italian Roma advocacy group, believes Mr Salvini’s policy is motivated solely to win popular support.

"This kind of policy and public discourse allows him and the League to gain in popularity and this is the reason," she told The National.

Ms Sordini denounced Mr Salvini’s July census as being nakedly racist and his plans for evictions as unworkable. No other ethnic groups in Italy are the subject of such eviction and expulsion policies.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by MASSIMO PERCOSSI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (9771930a)
A general view shows the mechanic shovel of an excavator machine during the removal of the last housing modules at the 'Camping River' Roma camp in Rome, Italy, 27 July 2018. Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi on 26 July hailed the clearance and closure of the Camping River Roma camp in the Italian capital. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had called for the clearance of the site to be suspended after an appeal by three inhabitants. The Rome city council informed the court about the issue and said that the clearance was necessary due to public health risks.
Clearing of gypsy camp in Rome, Italy - 27 Jul 2018

The lawyer said she is sure with the powers at the disposal of the prefectures they will find a pretext for dismantling the camps. Municipalities can evict Roma on the basis that they pose a social or environmental risk. In July last year, 300 Roma were removed from a site at Camping River in a northern suburb of Rome. The eviction, denounced by Amnesty International as “cruel and callous”, was ordered for sanitary reasons.

Such evictions do not resolve the issue of the camps. Those who are deported to other EU nations, principally Romania, simply return. The Italian Roma who are evicted face huge obstacles in trying to find somewhere to live and often end up in informal settlements where there is no electricity or sanitation.

This was the case after the May eviction of 73 families from the Giugliano municipality on the outskirts of Naples. All 450 of those evicted from the Via del Viaticale camp were forced into an abandoned area on a nearby industrial estate, sleeping in their cars or outdoors.

Ms Sordini expects the Giuliano case, currently under review at the European Court of Human Rights, to be repeated across Italy once Mr Salvini’s new push comes into effect.

The League’s policies and rhetoric has had further consequences. Attacks on the minority group, as they are reported to 21 Luglio, have greatly increased.

It has received reports of more instances of assault against Roma in the first half of 2019 than it received for all of last year. Ms Sordini said reports of police intimidation from the Roma have also increased. “The police are more aggressive because they are legitimated to be discriminatory against Roma,” she said.

In a days-long protest in Rome’s eastern suburbs in April, anti-Roma sentiment boiled over, as demonstrators, led by a coalition of far-right activists, blocked the arrival of a Roma family – 60 people including 33 children and three pregnant women – at accommodation in Torre Maura.

Residents gave fascist salutes, sang the Italian national anthem and physically attacked the Roma as they arrived. Advocates from 21 Luglio criticised the police response to the violent demonstrations as inadequate. The family was forced to return to their previous camp.

Gen Sabatino Romano, head of Italy’s police union brushed off criticism of officers’ handling of the Roma as “fake news”. He also dismissed concerns about the mapping of the Roma and said they were a part of “regular administration”.

Gen Romano was, however, full of praise for Mr Salvini and “security decree B” which was passed on August 5. The legislation, one of the last actions by parliament before Mr Salvini called for elections in the autumn, made headlines around the world because of the imposition of a €1 million (Dh4.1m) fine by Italy on migrant rescue boats that entered its territorial waters.

At the same time as reasserting his hardline anti-immigrant reputation through the legislation Mr Salvini also handed greater powers to the police. The decree introduced stricter punishments for insulting a police officer and longer sentences for criminal damage caused during protests.

Mr Salvini has made a show of supporting the police as interior minister. In office he regularly dons fire service and national police uniforms, technically breaking Italy’s uniform code by wearing the insignia. He has also tweeted his support for the security services when they find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Although Italy’s defence ministry oversees the military police – the Carabinieri – this did not stop the interior minister from wading into a debate when a US murder suspect in their custody was pictured handcuffed and blindfolded.

The American teenager was accused of stabbing a military police officer.

“To those who complain about the blindfolding of a person arrested, I remind them that the only victim to cry for is a ... Carabiniere,” Mr Salvini tweeted at the time.

Gen Romano declined to comment on the inquiry into police conduct over the blindfolding, calling the incident isolated and saying that he did not think it was part of a general problem.

Greater questions have been raised over Mr Salvini’s relationship with the police after an incident at a beach resort in Milano Marittima. The minister was filmed by freelance journalist Valerio Lo Muzio arranging for his teenage son to ride on a police jet ski for some holiday fun.

Lo Muzio told The National he was confronted by police wearing bathing costumes during the incident and told to stop filming, although he told them he was a journalist. After he gave them his ID they told him "now we know where you live". The vague threat left him feeling uneasy. "I didn't feel completely safe," he said.

At a later news conference Mr Lo Muzio asked the League leader why his son had been riding a police jet ski. Mr Salvini brushed the question off by asking the journalist why he enjoyed filming young children.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by MASSIMO PERCOSSI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (9771930h)
The removal of the last housing modules is underway inside the Camping River Roma camp in Rome, Italy, 27 July 2018. Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi on 26 July hailed the clearance and closure of the Camping River Roma camp in the Italian capital. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had called for the clearance of the site to be suspended after an appeal by three inhabitants. The Rome city council informed the court about the issue and said that the clearance was necessary due to public health risks.
Clearing of gypsy camp in Rome, Italy - 27 Jul 2018

Mr Salvini’s actions have encapsulated both the blurred lines in his relationship with the police and his lack of interest in dealing fairly with journalists, Mr Lo Muzio said. “This feels like it is a mirror of our times. It shows how we are. And that is very bad,” he said. “People have the right to be informed and journalists have the right to inform.”

Senator Valeria Fedeli, a former Italian education minister and an official with the country’s human rights council, believes the incident on the jet ski reveals an even more troubling dynamic developing between Mr Salvini and the police.

“Police have to obey orders and if they don’t they are in trouble,” she said explaining that it would become increasingly difficult for the security services to decide whether or not to follow certain directives in the current atmosphere.

“Salvini wants a repressive politics that closes political spaces so you cannot share anything with anyone. He talks to the stomach of the people, he pushes violence and he eliminates spaces of liberty creating fear,” Ms Fedeli said.