The Roma people, the new “untouchables” in Italy and in the European Union: urgent and effective measures are needed

In a message addressed to the European Parliament Council of the EU, European Commission, Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights), United Nations Human Rights Council EveryOne Gropup in Italy stated:

EveryOne Group with its eminent scholars, many of them Roma citizens, and its experts and activists in the battle against racial discrimination are appealing to you once again not to underestimate the phenomenon of racism that Roma citizens are being subjected to in all Member States, and in Italy in particular, where the situation is very critical.

Wednesday, January 7, 2008. At the present time, in spite of all the EU directives, resolutions, warnings, conferences and the inspection carried out by a delegation from the European Commission, no measures, no projects, no real social integration programmes have been undertaken to help the Roma people. Unfortunately the right-wing and far-right wing Italian Government is finding no opposition in this critical field from their political opponents – opponents who in their turn are conducting (these days on a local level, but during the Prodi Government on a national level) racial policies aimed at driving EU citizens of Roma origin off Italian territory. These measures are also making life very difficult for the Roma with Italian citizenship or those who took refuge in Italy in the 1970s and 1990s. Measures include camp clearances (without the offer of alternative solutions); constant persecution from members of the police force and magistrates; violence from racist groups, along with press propaganda that has helped to spread racial hatred towards the Roma people. These factors have brought about a dramatic exodus of Roma citizens towards other countries, or a return to their countries of origin. It has caused a drastic fall in their average life expectancy and many tragic deaths (due to illness, malnutrition, cold, hardship, cases of arson and other acts of violence). It has led to the removal of hundreds of Roma children from their legitimate parents, actions justified by their inability to ensure them “decent living conditions”.

If in 2007 about 45,000 Roma people originating from Romania lived in Italy, (where human rights organizations had undertaken serious integration and schooling programmes) persecution from the institutions has now thwarted these programmes and triggered off an ethnic purge, the terrible policies of which have been taken up by the local authorities and organized and carried out by the police force, which has encouraged the local people to collaborate. Many police actions have been characterized by inhumane and brutal behaviour, while no support has been forthcoming from the social services. Today fewer than 3000 Romanian Roma live in Italy, in dreadful socio-sanitary conditions. Even the Roma with Italian citizenship and the refugees from the former Yugoslavia, (about 45,000 in all) after the flight of many Roma families to Spain, France and other Member States, are living in camps in pitiful conditions.

Criminalized, with no access to steady jobs, turned away from schools or, in a few cases, enrolled but discriminated against and underestimated; they survive without any hope of emancipation. The activists involved in fighting for their rights are regularly intimidated and controlled by the police; in some cases they have been subjected to serious violence from members of the police force during camp clearances and persecutory actions. The percentage of Roma men and women in prisons is very high: they are offered no real legal protection, besides formal defence. Asking for charity (often their only means of support) is banned in many cities through local laws, and the police force is fighting the practice of begging all over Italy.

Newspapers and TV channels spreading lies and prejudice are now totally out of control. Before the almost indifferent eyes of the European Union the Roma people are becoming the “untouchables” of the Western world due to the level of intolerance that has taken root in Italy, something which has no precedent (if we exclude the years of the racial laws) and which represents a temptation for other Member States. We are thinking of Spain, where a recent survey by the institutions revealed that one schoolchild in two would not like a Roma child sitting at the same desk; of France, where the local institutions are adopting the Italian model of obsessive police control; and most of all of Romania, where the Italian racist propaganda has reached the local press, causing further racial hatred against the Roma population, which in Romania numbers about two million people. It is no exaggeration to compare the discriminated-against Roma to the “untouchables” because there is no real difference between the Dalits of South Asia and the “gypsies” of Italy. In fact the Dalits, the untouchables, have access to jobs considered “impure; such as cleaning out toilets, work in the cemeteries and stables and the recovery of material from rubbish dumps; while the Roma people in Italy are kept at a distance by everyone. History and experience teaches us that when a “caste” is formed inside a civilization, at the same time prejudice is formed that takes centuries to eradicate. Not to mention that exclusion and racial hatred causes a deterioration of the health, hygiene and “presentability” of the victims, who in the eyes of the local citizens become automatically “ugly, dirty and wicked”. Our group believes that in Italy the limits of civilization have been greatly overstepped and in the present state of things precise laws are needed, not just suggestions. For example – and we are able to supply you with a structured project – the obligation of countries to include in the number of workers from another Member State a percentage of Roma citizens equal to their ethnic ratio in their country of origin. Thus, considering that in Romania the Roma make up 10% of the total population, the project would call on Italy (and other Member States) to include in its quota of Romanian workers 10% of Romanians of Roma origin. It would be advisable to apply the same law inside the Member States themselves. For example, Romania should include a Roma citizen every ten citizens employed in the public and private sectors. It is necessary for the European Union to undertake effective and urgent measures, consulting associations like our own that have considerable experience in the field, combined with historical and modern-day knowledge of the characteristics of the Roma people.

It is unacceptable that a civilization whose foundation is based on union, ethnic and racial equality, equal opportunities and human rights, watches on as a new category of human beings without rights takes shape - that of the new untouchables. We are available for any form of collaboration in the difficult procedures that are now necessary for fighting the plague of racial hatred and the denial of human rights for an entire people, and a culture of prejudice which conceals, in a perilous way, both the real history of the Roma people in Europe and the necessary measures that must be rapidly taken to lead them to their emancipation and a correct moral, legal, cultural and historical recognition.

Roberto Malini, Matteo Pegoraro, Dario Picciau - Gruppo EveryOne