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Tensions rise over Italy’s gipsy migrants

January 27, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Published on the Financial Times on January 27 2009

By Guy Dinmore and Gabriella Bianchi

A political storm has erupted around Italy’s gipsy community after a series of recent attacks prompted Silvio Berlusconi, the country’s prime minister, to suggest deploying 30,000 troops nationwide to combat crime blamed on gipsies and other immigrants.

Europe’s open borders have led to a flood of Romanian gipsies into Italy, straining municipal services and stirring political tensions. Some church groups estimate 50,000 Romanian gipsies have arrived in recent years, adding to thousands of Balkan gipsies who had fled the former Yugoslavia. Many live in squalid conditions condemned by human rights groups.

Mr Berlusconi suggested the extra deployment of troops in response to the highly publicised cases of two women reportedly gang raped near Rome. Police have not publicly identified their suspects as gipsies.

But Carabinieri police units have searched 47 settlements and other places for the suspected rapists and one “Romanian” was arrested, local media said.

Police also intervened after a neo-fascist group demonstrated in Guidonia near Rome – where the rapes took place – during which thugs attacked Romanian and Albanian immigrants.

The possible troop deployment follows the decision last summer by the prime minister’s tough-on-crime ruling coalition to order 3,000 troops to back up police last summer, mainly in the fight against organised crime and illegal immigration.

Ignazio La Russa, defence minister, said yesterday that Mr Berlusconi’s proposal remained a “hypothesis”, to be discussed further in high-level talks on Thursday.

Gipsy activists are investigating allegations that units of the Folgore parachute brigade were involved in making arrests and breaking up illegal shacks used by gipsies on Rome’s Via Gordiani last week.

An army spokesman said a unit of Sardinian grenadiers had been involved in checking identities of some 70 gipsies in an illegal camp.

Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, made his second inspection tour of camps near Rome this month.

He was visibly shocked at meeting with a Romanian who called herself Marinella, living in a tent with her two children, in the midst of rats and a swamp caused by torrential rain.

The situation is unacceptable,” he told the Financial Times. “Nothing has changed since my last report in July. In fact living conditions are even worse. So much talk and media attention but nothing happens. This is a display of inept policy.

Meanwhile, an official poster campaign sponsored by Gianni Alemanno, mayor of Rome, is boasting of “6,216 expulsions in 2008” and taking credit for a “20 per cent fall in crime”.

Formerly a neo-fascist, Mr Alemanno campaigned on a promise to crack down on crime, illegal immigrants and gipsies, capitalising on emotions that were running high after the murder of a woman by a Romanian gipsy near a railway station.

Mario Mori, a retired general who is security adviser to the mayor, sought to distinguish actual policy from the heat of last April’s elections.

Mr Mori said the 6,216 expelled by the prefect of the interior ministry were mostly illegal immigrants from north Africa and only a few had been gipsies.

He noted there was no national legislation on “regulating” gipsies and that policy had been left to individual cities.

Mr Alemanno wants to erase unauthorised camps and build new “maxi-camps” for gipsies who have the “right” to stay in Italy by proving they are EU citizens. Those without papers are liable for expulsion.

Mr Hammarberg said yesterday: “I am concerned about reported plans to use soldiers for evicting Roma (gipsies) from their settlements.

“If evictions are necessary at all they should be conducted humanely and only after a satisfactory alternative for housing is found and offered.”

Nazareno Guarnieri, head of an organisation that represents gipsies, said: “They say we like living in camps. They invented camps. None of us lived in camps before. We want homes.”

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