Italy and the Rom

by Michael Smith

The period of 2008-2009 will be remembered by Romani rights and human rights activists for the extremely troublesome situation of Romani-Gypsy communities in Italy.

Increasing racism and anti-Romani sentiment erupted in Naples and Milan in May 2008, culminating in firebomb attacks on Gypsy camps in the area. The camps were allowed to burn while the Carabinieri, so it is understood, even prevent firefighters from entering.

In addition to that, various legal measures and policies have been adopted by the public authorities, such as the ongoing “census” of the Romani population and the transportation of Roma to special camps even further from city centres in order to “sanitise” urban areas, are outright abuses of individual freedoms and rights. Those so-called “Solidarity Villages” are being guarded by special anti-terrorist units of the Carabinieri which, we must not forget, are not ordinari police but military police.

Growing fear and hatred of Gypsies among the general population on the one hand and the hostile approach of the national government and some local administrations on the other created a witch hunt atmosphere directed against even long-established Roma and Sinti Italian citizens as well as newly arriving Romani migrants.

Reports had it that even Roma and Sinti of Italian citizenship were fleeing from the Tyrolean areas into Austria. Not that they will be accepted as refugees now.

It is true that the problems of the Rom are not limited to Italy only. The Romani People are struggling to cope with physical violence, segregation and other forms of discrimination all over Europe. The uniqueness of the Italian case is that the Government at its highest levels has made a policy of promoting racial animosity and xenophobia, and even children have been indoctrinated against Gypsies in that they do not want to have them as classmates in schools and children as young as eight have been making comments to the media that Gypsies should be removed from Italy. Welcome to the New Europe!

And what are the Council of Europe and European Commission, who are basically the controllers of the European Union and the European Parliament, doing about this? Nothing, to be precise and as a Gypsy one can be but left wondering as to whether this is in fact a policy if the New Europe, namely to ethnically cleanse Europe of the Gypsy.

© M Smith (Veshengro), 2009

Fascist extremists march through Romani community

by Michael Smith

On Sunday, March 15, 2009 some 60 supporters and representatives of the Czech extreme right Workers' Party (DS) marched through the Janov housing estate which is predominantly inhabited by Romanies. No incidents have been reported, according to the police, who monitored the action and who detained two persons. One of them was unlawfully sticking up posters before the event.

The march was intended to intimidate the Romanies living in the housing estate and toi this extent the DS definitely succeeded for Rom resident there were afraid to set foot into the street, so we have ben told, on that very Sunday.

The extremists also presented their shadow mayor of the town. His appointment is an expression of the DS's disagreement with how the Litvinov town hall deals with the situation in Janov, the party says. This shadow mayor is Vladan Renak, 33, a secondary school language teacher, who is not a DS member. He says he believes that nothing would change in the town without the DS. The town is ill, he said, the treatment will be long, but radical and effective.

That can, I am sure, only mean one thing and that is that the DS and this shadow mayor want to remove and expel the Romanies from Janov.

Litvinov's mayor Milan Stovicek said the that DS sponges on the housing estate's problems that the town hall has been solving for some time already.

According to its web page, the DS espouses national socialism and rejects capitalism and communism.

After one of the DS's actions in Litvinov last year, its participants marched to Janov. The event ended in hard clashes between hundreds of rightist radicals and police officers, leaving behind several injured people on both sides.

Some 6000 people live at Janov, where socially weak people were moved to from various parts of the country. Many are unemployed and indebted.

The government wanted the DS to be banned, but the Supreme Administrative Court decided early this month that the evidence the government presented was inconclusive and dismissed the proposal.

We must not forget that this is the supreme court in the very country that also was advocating the creation of Gypsy ghettos with police guards at the only way in or out, claimed to be “in order to protect the Rom from Nazis”.

And, just like in Italy and Hungary, both EU countries, the EU sits idly by and does absolutely nothing. Why is that, one can but wonder.

© M Smith (Veshengro), 2009

Lampedusa: Jacques Barrot the European Commissioner takes part in a sham inspection and exonerates the Italian Government for its xenophobic policies.

Lampedusa, Italy, March 17th, 2009: When Maurice Rossel, representing the Red Cross, inspected the Theresienstadt ghetto on June 23rd, 1944 he did not see the appalling persecution of the Jews taking place in the camp because the Nazis had prepared a deceiving welcome for him. Rossel saw flower beds in bloom; kindergartens and schools; theatres and a pavilion for concerts; medical assistance for the women and elderly.

After his visit, which had been announced well in advance, the recreation and health structures were dismantled after the deception had achieved the result Hitler’s assassins had hoped for. A similar inspection took place on March 13th, 2009. Jacques Barrot, the European Commissioner responsible for Justice, Freedom and Security (again with ample warning and arranged with the Italian Interior Minister) carried out an inspection of the Immigration Centre of Lampedusa and the former Loran base - now the new Centre of Identification and Expulsion. The horrors of the ill-treatment of the immigrants, the unjust repatriation of refugees, the violations of human rights were carefully hidden from view. More than 300 immigrants (most of them asylum seekers who had arrived on Lampedusa in recent weeks and were being held in tragic conditions in the old Loran base) had been transferred to temporary holding centres elsewhere, their location still unknown. Mr Barrot, like Rossel, witnessed the staging of a reception centre in full respect of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, a centre carefully prepared for his visit. We ask ourselves whether this is what Mr Barrot really wants to see in order to avoid taking responsibility for lifting the lid off the pot of rancid, stinking stew that European human rights once again risks becoming. Taking responsibility would risk revealing the horrors taking place in Italy and other Member States to the entire EU. Today’s Italy (aided by the inadequacy of these inspections) shows itself to the European Union the way Nazi Germany wanted to appear to the world: “hard, but right” - to use the words of Heinrich Himmler.

EveryOne Group

Bathrooms and showers for Gypsy pupils

by Michael Smith

Rome, March 2009: A school in Milan, northern Italy, is considering making bathrooms and showers available to Gypsy children who attend local schools to allow them to wash before entering class.

The project, entitled 'Water and Soap', is an initiative by the Riccardo Massa public school, located in Milan's western outskirts.

Giovanna Foglia, the school's principal, apparently told the Italian daily 'Il Giornale' that Gypsy children come to school 'unwashed' making their classmates unwilling to sit next to them.

"Children from the camp”, she said, arrived at school very dirty: this made them feel embarrassed and the other pupils shared school desks with them reluctantly” and she claimed that many Gypsy families "are in favor of the initiative."

Asked about dirty Italian pupils at the school, Foglia said in her experience, they always come from socially inadequate families.

"In these cases, I speak to the families and if necessary, the social services are brought in," she said. "It's not a cultural issue."

So, it would appear that, according to the school's principal quoted, being dirty is part of the Romani-Gypsy Culture, Pfui! And such racism is permitted in Italian schools, a country that is part of the European Union

There are an estimated 160,000 Roma Gypsies in Italy, nearly half of whom were born in Italy and have Italian citizenship.

Others come from European Union countries such as Romania and the countries of the former Yugoslavia.

The Italian government claims it wants to give those who are in Italy legally better access to schools, medical and social services.

This all smacks of the same attitude that existed in some British schools some years back when in some cases Gypsy children were forced to have a wash at school.

One of those cases that I fully know of was of a Romany boy, aged then about seven, who was forced by the teacher at the primary school he attended to strip in front of the class and his classmates and was then washed by the teacher.

However, knowing the family it was knows that the child would not be sent to school unwashed. It was the teacher's assumption though that, being a Gyppo, he needed a wash it was assumed by her that he would not get one at home.

The truth, however, is that the family of this boy made sure that he left each and every morning washed and combed for school. That he had to travel a path that was often muddy and hence he might get a little dirty no one took into consideration. As far as the teacher was concerned he was a Gyppo kid and Gypsies are simply dirty.

We had hoped that such attitudes had become a thing of the past but, alas this does not seem to be the case and, in fact, things seem to be getting worse rather than better.

While the so-called watchdogs may bark and condemn this or that anti-Gypsy action in Italy or other countries those dogs just simply do not have teeth or are afraid to bite. Nothing gets done and the likes of Italy thumb b their noses at the folks in the Council of Europe, the European Commission and the European Union and its parliament. What a farce.

© M Smith (Veshengro), 2009



EveryOne Group: “It was a terrible experience. One woman collapsed to the floor. Mothers and fathers in tears threatened to set fire to themselves if the authorities took their children from them. Our activists were not allowed to offer any humanitarian mediation and no assistance was offered the sick. The action by the police was totally unexpected, because the Mayor of Pesaro and authorities had officially promised to carry out an integration programme with jobs and housing.

At about 7 a.m. on the morning of February 25th in Pesaro, about 20 officers, (regular police and municipal police) entered the abandoned factory situated in Via Fermo, 49, where 30 Romanian Roma have been living for the last year. Among them patients being treated at San Salvatore Hospital for heart problems and tumours; many women and nine minors, including a few-month-old baby. The intention was to clear the factory and separate all the children from their parents. “We rushed to the factory and witnessed a heart-rending sight”, say the EveryOne activists. Mothers and fathers in tears, the children terrified. The police officers had announced that the children would be put in the care of the social services and taken to an institute. Only the mothers would be allowed to stay with them, the men would be thrown out into the street”. Nico Grancea, one of the most well-known international Roma activists is a member of this “nomad” community living in Pesaro. “The police told us the owner of the factory had reported our occupation of the premises. However, they knew that the Mayor of Pesaro and all the local authorities were well aware of our presence in the building we had taken refuge in after fleeing from poverty and racism in Romania. Many of the people involved in the clearance are under the protection of the European Parliament as they have been subjected to attacks, beatings, and intimidation in Italy in the past - both from members of the police force and groups of racists”. The authorities, though, did not listen to reason, in spite of Roberto Malini and Dario Picciau from EveryOne explaining how delicate the situation was, seeing the community are witnesses for the European Union to the camp clearances being carried out throughout Italy. “Our group had obtained a formal commitment from the Pesaro local authorities promising a housing-employment programme”, say the activists. The programme was supposed to have begun in early September 2008, but it has been kept on being postponed. ‘Il Messaggero’ and other local newspapers published the statements issued by the mayor and some councillors concerning the commitment taken up by the local authorities”. EveryOne had already supplied the social services and local authorities with the full names and details of the Roma community. The local San Salvatore Hospital, after hearing about the presence of children, pregnant women and seriously ill persons in the community, initiated a health and assistance programme for the families. Still awaiting the integration programme, exhausted from poverty and the hardships of winter, the Roma community now finds itself facing another humanitarian tragedy against which the EU Commission, CERD and the international organizations for Roma rights are fighting: the removal of minors from their parents by local authorities. “Roma families consider the family unit their whole reason for living,” explain the experts from EveryOne, “and in many cases separation from their loved ones can lead the adults to attempt suicide. In the years of the Holocaust, the Nazis were aware of this aspect of Roma culture. In fact in Auschwitz, unlike for Jewish families, the “gypsy” families were kept all together in the “Zigeunerlager”. When fathers, mothers and children are separated it leads to situations of great suffering and uncontrolled panic. During the police operation, a young woman threw herself to the ground, others shouted desperately, while one mother hid a kitchen knife in the folds of her skirt and murmured that she would slit her own throat if she was separated from her husband. In spite of the police cordon, we were able to communicate with the Roma community and prevent the worst happening”. Free movement and communication with the activists was not even granted to Nico Grancea, the young activist and protagonist of many actions in defence of the persecuted Roma, a witness and consultant for the European Parliament and international human rights organizations. “My wife was holding our four-month-old baby,” Nico told us, “while the other mothers were terrified at what might happen. The police officers would not listen to us, they didn’t see families standing before them, just a job to be over and done with as quickly as possible. They are unaware of the Roma people’s spirit of sacrifice. They don’t know that many of us were very close to carrying out acts of irreparable self-harm. Some were considering setting fire to themselves if the authorities had split their families up. They would not have separated us, we would have protested by sacrificing our own lives. My friends from EveryOne understood perfectly how serious the situation was and they helped us with their past experiences of dramatic situations. The police officers, however, refused to acknowledge their role as official mediators working on behalf of the European Parliament”. Fortunately the Roma mothers got together and made a courageous escape with their young children.

“I have been studying the Holocaust and the dynamics of the persecutions for the last thirty years”, says Roberto Malini, “I have published books and held conferences on the subject. It is undeniable that there are precise similarities between the years of the racist laws and the present. The flight of the Roma mothers in Pesaro reminded me of the famous operation carried out by the Westerweel Group in Holland, led by Mirjam Pinkhof – a dear friend of mine and survivor of the Holocaust – and other activists who saved the lives of countless Jewish children”. Some members of the EU Commission and Parliament, who are in contact with EveryOne, followed the events taking place in Pesaro with trepidation. “While all this was happening, we were constantly in touch with a number of Italian MPs and senators, as well as the Pesaro and Urbino Public Prosecutor’s Office”, says Matteo Pegoraro. “We all feared the police operation would end in tragedy. Malini, Picciau and Grancea, however, have a lot of experience and it is not the first time EveryOne has found itself in these difficult and delicate situations. However, now the operation is over, it is necessary for those involved in politics to take a stand, and some MPs from the Radical Party have confirmed their intention of bringing up a parliamentary question on the episode”.

“I don’t understand why the authorities did not contact us before carrying out such an operation” Dario Picciau says. “While all this was taking place I was on the phone to Viktoria Mohacsi, the Euro MP, while the principal European NGOs were about to organize a task force in support of the Roma community. We cannot criticise the police officers, who were only obeying orders. They did not take into account, because it was not part of their job, the vulnerability of the families, as well as their precarious health, and their great fear, the result of many episodes of racism. However, we are unable to understand the reason for sending 20 armed officers with patrol cars and a police van to the factory, instead of trying to solve the problem around a table with politicians, local authorities and activists present. Viktoria Mohacsi, other Euro MPs and some of the leading experts in Roma life and culture were ready and willing to take part in a round-table conference”.

On Sunday 22nd February, Canale 5 sent a film crew (led by the journalist Mimmo Lombezzi) to the abandoned factory in Via Fermo to do a piece on the conditions of the Roma people in Italy - which should have been shown on Tuesday February 24th. Grancea and several Roma had spoken before the cameras about the persecution they are forced to undergo every day; the attitude of the police force towards them; the segregation they are kept in; and the actions of the “ethnic cleansing patrols” who are using violence towards the Roma exploiting the present climate of intolerance. One man had shown the Canale 5 cameras the bruises still visible on his body after he was beaten up in Ancona on February 15th, when xenophobic violence broke out in Italy following the brutal rape of a young girl in Caffarella Park in Rome the previous day.

A dossier on the episode has been sent to the European Parliament; the EU Commission and Council; the International Criminal Court of the Hague; CERD (the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination); and the Legal Office of the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) concerning the serious damage the lack of assistance and failure to carry out the integration programme promised by the Pesaro authorities has had on the Roma community.

Source: EveryOne Group