Italy closes the door on Gypsies

A woman talks with friends in the Candoni Gypsy camp on the outskirts of Rome. Hundreds of such camps have been closed in recent years.
A woman talks with friends in the Candoni Gypsy camp on the outskirts of Rome. Hundreds of such camps have been closed in recent years. (Andrea Bruce)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 12, 2010

MILAN - This venerable city, long known for savory saffron risotto and the leggy models of Fashion Week, is moving to establish itself as something else: a zero-tolerance zone for Gypsies.

Anti-Gypsy campaigns in neighboring France have sparked international criticism, with officials there in recent months deporting more than 1,000 ethnic Roma - a clannish people migrating west in large numbers from Eastern Europe. But with great bravado, Milan is taking the lead in responding to Italy's own "Gypsy Emergency."

Blaming rising crime on the new waves of Roma immigrants, authorities are moving to dismantle Milan's largest authorized Gypsy camp, Triboniano, a teeming shantytown of street musicians and day laborers that officials decry as a den of thieves. At the same time, Milan is bulldozing hundreds of small, impromptu camps inhabited by newer arrivals and issuing mass eviction notices to Roma families living in another long-established camp in the city's largest immigrant neighborhood.

"These are dark-skinned people, not Europeans like you and me," said Riccardo De Corato, who is Milan's vice mayor from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's ruling party and who is in charge of handling the camps. He later added: "Our final goal is to have zero Gypsy camps in Milan."

The campaign underway here is part of what observers are calling the most intense wave of anti-immigration sentiment to wash over Western Europe in years.

The immigration debate in Europe, just as in the United States, has dramatically intensified in the wake of the Great Recession, with voters increasingly blaming immigrants such as the Roma for taking away jobs, driving up crime rates and disturbing time-honored traditions.

Across the continent, governments are boldly throwing up new barriers to immigration, increasing enforcement and targeting groups such as the Roma, who are also known as Gypsies. Even in some of the most progressive nations in the region, such as Sweden, voters are showing new support for ultra-right politicians whose platforms center on a tougher line on immigration.

In Britain, the new Conservative-led coalition government has slapped a temporary cap on immigration from non-European Union nations, limiting the ability of companies to hire foreign nationals in a bid to drive down the unemployment rate. A permanent cap set to go into effect next year is expected to make it more difficult for even Americans to get long-term work visas there.

In France, a proposed law could strip citizenship from foreigners naturalized for less than 10 years if they commit violent crimes against the police or a government official. New detention centers would be set up to make it easier to deport illegal immigrants. Citizens of other European Union countries - who theoretically enjoy freedom of movement across the 27-nation zone - would find it harder to stay in France if they are not law-abiding and gainfully employed.

For a region that prides itself as a bastion of progressive thought, the campaigns in Europe have nevertheless taken on a decidedly ethnic and religious bent similar to the debates in the United States over the proposed Islamic center in Manhattan and the Arizona law targeting illegal immigrants.

A new law in France will ban Muslim women from wearing full-face Islamic veils in public, with similar laws pending in the Netherlands and Spain. Switzerland has prohibited the construction of mosque minarets. But the campaigns against the Roma in France and Italy have stoked accusations that politicians are targeting unpopular immigrant groups to shore up flagging support.

"There is a worrying trend in Europe in which we are seeing the embrace of populist policies," said Benjamin Ward, the Europe deputy director for Human Rights Watch in London. "They are creating a new climate of intolerance in Europe with movements in some countries now openly hostile to ethnic minorities and migrants."

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