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Italy's crackdown on Gypsies reflects rising anti-immigrant tide in Europe

Italy cracks down on Gypsies and their camps as part of an anti-immigrant effort.

Few nations, though, have gone as far as Italy, where the number of immigrants has more than doubled over the past decade, to more than 5 million.

Since Berlusconi was reelected in 2008, his fragile conservative coalition has made immigration and domestic security priorities, passing a law that imposes a fine of up to $13,600 on illegal immigrants and increasing salary and housing requirements for legal immigrants trying to bring in family members.

Last year, Italy virtually stopped issuing new work permits for non-European Union immigrants and set up a policy aimed at preventing refugees from entering the country by sea from North Africa. The result, according to the U.N. refugee agency, has been a dramatic drop in boat lifts across the Mediterranean from Libya, which had become a major transit route not only for thousands of economic migrants but also for asylum seekers from Somalia, Sudan and other African nations.

"It would be difficult now for immigration policy to get any more restrictive in Italy, unless we started to build walls," said Oliviero Forti, immigration director for the Catholic charity Caritas in Rome.

'Packing our things'

Inside the ramshackle Triboniano camp in northern Milan, Vladimiro Ilie, a Roma from Romania, stared at boxes brimming with clothes, pots and pans in the two-room trailer he shares with his wife and two children. "My family has been packing our things over the last few days," said Ilie, 41. "We have been warned by the city that at any moment, they will show up and tell us to leave."

The clearing of Triboniano, an encampment of 600 established in 2001, is at the center of the city's plan to expel Roma. The effort underscores the stresses tearing at the E.U. over the flow of Eastern European immigrants into the West, even as it aspires to be a unified and nearly borderless region. Although the citizens of E.U. nations largely have access to the labor markets in other nations, countries may still use legal loopholes to expel those who commit crimes, are considered a threat to public security or go without a job for lengthy periods.

Originally a nomadic people who came to Europe from South Asia centuries ago, Roma were persecuted by the Nazis during the Holocaust. They have lived in Italy for generations, but their numbers soared after their traditional homeland of Romania was admitted into the E.U. in 2007. Since then, the number of Romanians in Italy - a substantial portion of them Roma - has almost tripled, to 800,000.

Famously insular, the Roma have tended to cluster in caravan camps, preserving their language and music and often earning hardscrabble livelihoods on the streets. They have been long associated with crime. After the rape and murder of an Italian woman by a Roma man, the national government declared a "Gypsy Emergency" in 2008 - long before France's campaign this summer - granting extraordinary powers to cities to address the influx.

Nowhere has that campaign been as sharp and swift as in Milan, Italy's center of industrial wealth, which is dominated by Berlusconi's party and the ultra-nationalist Northern League. Over the past two years, Milanese officials have expelled 7,000 Roma, leveling 346 illegal settlements.

Now the city is targeting several formerly authorized camps. Although officials initially said Triboniano must go to make room for a new highway, De Corato described the move as more of a social decision.

"Many of them are criminals," the vice mayor said in an interview. "They prostitute their own women and children." He later said that "there is no reason for the camp to stay."

A few families, including Ilie's, were to be granted public housing to show Milan's willingness to embrace Roma prepared to integrate into Italian life. But two weeks ago, officials rescinded the offer after an outcry from local residents and the national government. Officials say camp dwellers who do not leave voluntarily will be taken to the city limits; those with criminal records or no jobs could be deported.

Privately, even some in Triboniano say the camp maintains an unemployment rate of more than 60 percent and is home to some engaging in criminal activity. But Ilie, a carpenter who left Romania for Italy with his family in 1999, said Roma are being painted with a broad brush and that many, like him, are eager to integrate.

His children - Ana Maria, 16, and Luigi, 11 - no longer speak their native dialect. Both go to Italian schools and have Italian friends. "I don't care what happens to this camp anymore; what I care about is my family," he said. "We want to integrate, but they won't give us the chance."

The hard-line approach in Milan contrasts sharply with one in Rome. There, the local government is relocating Gypsies to camps with tighter security and constant video surveillance but also with better sanitary conditions, including running water and electricity. Gypsy immigrants from Eastern Europe will be given four years to find jobs and educate their children. Those who do will be allowed access to public housing. Those who don't, officials say, will face deportation.

"Italy," said Giuseppe Pecoraro, Rome's special representative on Gypsy issues, "is still a tolerant country."

Special correspondent Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi contributed to this report.

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