washingtonpost.com
Italy closes the door on Gypsies

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; A1

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."

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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