Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, center, speaks at a local election rally in Cinisello Balsamo, near Milan, on June 17, 2018. (Fabrizio Radaelli/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini hasn't even been in office a month, and he has already ruffled feathers at home and abroad. First, he refused to allow a rescue ship carrying hundreds of migrants to enter Italy, prompting an international standoff that resulted in Spain agreeing to take them in.

And now he has sparked further tension in Italy, announcing that he wants to implement a census of the Roma population and expel any non-Italians. Critics are comparing the move to laws implemented by fascist leader Benito Mussolini, who discriminated against Jewish and Roma populations in the first half of the 20th century. Even Salvini's own partners in the Five Star Movement say an ethnically based census is unconstitutional.

“I’ve asked the ministry to prepare a dossier on the Roma question in Italy,” he said Monday, adding that it would involve organizing a census to "see who, how, how many."

There are about 180,000 Roma in Italy, and some are originally from Romania and the former Yugoslavia. They have long faced discrimination across Europe. Last year, hundreds were evicted from an informal Roma settlement in Naples, in a move Amnesty International labeled as cruel. The human rights group also accused Italian authorities of "discrimination and segregation" of the Roma people.

Associazone 21 Luglio, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the Roma in Italy, says about 50 percent of the population is Italian, and many of the rest are stateless.

Italy's populist government has promised to crack down on migration to Italy, and has called for mass deportations of migrants and asylum seekers. And Salvini has not masked his contempt for the Roma, either. On Monday, he said that "unfortunately, we will have to keep the Italian Roma because we can’t expel them."

Chiara Gribaudo, a deputy in the center-left Democratic Party, said "the way is short from a census to a concentration camp."

"Salvini apparently decided to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the racial laws,” she added.

Salvini said that tracking the Roma population would allow the government "to care for the children who aren’t allowed to go to school regularly because they prefer to introduce them to a life of crime." But on Tuesday, after facing intense criticism for the proposal, Salvini doubled down on it.

" 'Census' of Roma and control of public funds. If the left proposes it, it’s fine, if I propose it, it’s RACISM,” he wrote on Facebook. “I’m not backing down, and am going forward. Italians first and their security.”

Read more

Italy's new government sends immigration message by rejecting rescue ship

Matteo Salvini could be Western Europe's first far-right leader since 1945

Italy draws its battle lines with Europe