Alecs Iancu, Nine O’Clock (Bucharest), October 15, 2007
The parents of the four Rroma children who died in a Livorno fire on August 10, which sparked an immense scandal and a fierce media campaign against Romanian immigrants in Italy, admitted that the fire was not set by other parties, but was caused by a lit candle left unsupervised, according to a report in daily ‘Ziua’ on Saturday.
The children’s parents, who had been arrested immediately after the event on suspicion of having neglected their children and not granting them assistance in an emergency situation, confessed that the ‘racist attack’ had been invented by them. Initially, the parents had said that their camp, near Livorno, had been attacked by a group of Moroccans or Albanese, who were yelling death threats to the Rroma and throwing Molotov cocktails in the camp.
The parents were released on parole after signing a confession and they are facing imprisonment up to a year and six months for having abandoned their children in the fire. Shortly after the event however, the Livorno fire was claimed by a previously unknown extremist group, the Armed Group for Ethnic Cleansing, which threatened further attacks against Rroma communities in Italy if they weren’t going to leave Italian territory in 20 days. “The Livorno incident, followed by various offences allegedly committed by Romanians in Italy, and culminating with the deadly shooting of a Romanian man in what appeared to be a clash between members of two rival gangs, triggered a wave of discontent over the presence of Romanian immigrants in Italy.
In the past few weeks, Romanians in Italy have been the target of an unprecedented media attack, with several newspapers publishing reports detailing how crime rate has grown since the number of Romanian immigrants increased considerably in Italy.
Although Romanian workers in Italy staged protests underlining that the offences committed by a small segment of immigrants should not press upon the entire Romanian community, the campaign against them gained momentum and resulted in more threats, this time sent to Romanian consular offices.
Moreover, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s announcement recently that the open gates policy as regards immigrants’ access will be maintained triggered further criticism.
On Saturday, tens of thousands of Italian right-wingers took to the streets, protesting against Prodi’s policies and the presence of Romanian immigrants. The rally was called by the head of the right-wing National Alliance, Gianni Alemanno, and came following the death of an Italian man who had been attacked over two months ago by two Romanians. Moreover, Italy is facing an alarming crime rate increase, but the Italian media more often than not casts the blame on Romanians for any offence committed by Rroma people, even if they are from other countries, daily ‘Evenimentul Zilei’ said.
The newspaper also underlines that acts of violence against Romanians are not reflected by the Italian media in a fair manner, as opposed to those against Italians. The head of the Romanian Association in Italy, Eugen Terteleac, quoted by the publication, thinks that the media, the representatives of Italian institutions and the Romanian authorities alike are to be held responsible for the tense situation.
Yesterday, Social Democrat leader Mircea Geoana in an open letter asked Italian politicians, media and culture personalities to reject “any extremist tendencies, which incite to aggression against the Romanian community and will eventually lead to condemning the entire Romanian nation.”
Many Italians would disagree. In recent weeks Italy has declared itself under siege by the people they call zingari and sinti, pejorative local terms for Roma, who also sometimes call themselves gypsies. Headlines from the leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera, scream about “The Invasion of Nomads,” Rome’s daily Il Messegero begs “Help!” and La Repubblica complains on its front page, “There Are Too Many! Rom Emergency.” (Rom is the term used by Italians for the Roma to avoid confusion with the name of their capital.) Walter Veltroni, the mayor of Rome, told a recent press conference that Rom have been found guilty of 75 percent of all petty crimes in the city so far this year. So grave is the situation, he says, that he has asked the ministry of the interior to adopt special regulations that would classify nomadic gypsies as illegal immigrants, allowing the expulsion of even legally resident Romanians and Bulgarians from the country if they are deemed a threat to security.
In addition to asking for help from the national government, Veltroni is taking aggressive steps to get the gypsies off the street. As have the mayors of cities like Venice, Florence and Turin, he has banned once-ubiquitous panhandlers—almost all of them Rom—from washing windshields at traffic intersections. In some cases Rom minors are now treated as adults in the criminal courts, even though Italian minors who commit similar offenses are not. “The situation of public order in Rome is much worse after the massive entrance of Romanians,” says Veltroni. “We hope that we can stop this brutal criminality that the city can no longer tolerate.”
Removing the squeegee people, however, hasn’t worked out quite as well in Italy as it once did for former mayor Rudy Giuliani’s anticrime battle in New York. Indeed, stripping the panhandlers of one of their means of support seems to have backfired, sparking a wave of violence inside the Rom community. Last week in Rome a group of Rom from one encampment murdered a 20-year-old Rom man and injured two others in a subway underpass in the residential area of Trieste. Their address was published as the “Terzo Mondo” or “Third World” encampment along the Aniene river in Rome. The week before, two raids on Rom camps around the city garnered a weapons cache with Molotov cocktails, knives, guns and explosives. When the police raided, the camp’s residents lit the makeshift huts on fire. In a similar incident in the northern town of Livorno, four Rom children burned to death when Rom residents torched their camp during a police raid.
Europe’s nomads, of course, are no strangers to persecution. Long stereotyped as beggars and thieves, the Rom were said to be “opposed to all forms of work when it is laborious and demands great effort” by 18th-century German historian Heinrich Moritz. Almost 200 years later Adolph Hitler rounded them up and sent off to concentration camps alongside the Jews. No one knows for sure how many died at the Nazis’ hands; some estimates put the figure as high as 500,000. Prejudices still linger throughout the continent, but they may be harshest in Italy, which has the highest number of nomads in Europe and has been cited by the European Commission as one of 14 countries still practicing discrimination against them. The Censis statistical agency estimates that there are 160,000 Rom in Italy, of whom only 30,000—those from Balkan countries and the former Yugoslavia—are illegal. The remaining 130,000 are either Italians whose roots in the country can be traced back to the 1400s, or else from Bulgaria and Romania, both EU members whose citizens are allowed to live and work in any other EU state.
That status, however, has done little to prevent the community from being treated as a segregated underclass. In recent years the Italian government has spent nearly 15 million euros setting up prefabricated huts in bleak settlements that offer amenities like water and electricity—but also enforce a nighttime curfew. Rome has nine of these encampments, but most Rom prefer to live in the 20 or so makeshift camps scattered around the city. “The city camps are prisons,” says Misa, a young woman who panhandles in front of the Santa Maria in Trastevere basilica. Misa, who brings along a different baby every few days to rouse sympathy when she begs, lives in an encampment under the Ponte Sublico along the Tiber River. “They say you can leave [the government camps], but I know people who went there who were just sent back to Romania.”
That’s a message the public doesn’t seem ready to hear. Asked by NEWSWEEK recently if they would be willing to employ a legally resident Rom, a small group of shopkeepers in Rome’s ancient Trastevere district responded with laughter and refusals before launching into tales of thefts by “Zingari.” Even more revealing were the remarks by Achille Serra, the prefect of Rome, after his visit to one of the Rom encampments. “There were no women there,” Serra told an editor from Corriere della Sera. “Maybe they were all on the Metro pickpocketing. The men were all there sleeping after spending the night robbing houses.” With attitudes like that, Italy’s Rom are unlikely to be enjoying la dolce vita anytime soon.