Italian police wearing white coveralls used crow bars to smash the windows of mobile homes at dawn last Thursday.
They were attacking a Roma camp called River Village on the outskirts of Rome. They sealed off the area, evicted residents and destroyed homes.
The new Italian government’s racism is not just rhetoric.
The consequences of the state harassment and racism are stark. For instance, an arson attack destroyed the camper vans of a Roma family in Turin in May.
Inside were two women and four children. They had previously been thrown out of a state camp by the police.
Denisa woke up the other woman who slept in the camper and together they rushed out with their children.
“What hurts most is that there were so many boys laughing and filming the scene,” said Denisa. “We are human beings too.”
A Facebook group about the family was clear in its threats. One post read, “It is time for the population to do what the institutions do not do.”
Another read, “Gas tank is the answer.”
Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini is fuelling these flames. The leader of the League party said he would conduct a census of Roma people—as a prelude to expelling them.
“And Italian Roma? Unfortunately, we have to keep them,” he said.
After criticism Salvini said, “I’m not backing down, and am going forward. Italians first and their security.”
It evoked memories of the racial laws against Jews and the Roma by Benito Mussolini’s fascist government 80 years ago.
According to Rosi Mangiacavallo, Italian representative of the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), “Salvini is building up hate against Roma. This could lead to violent acts.”
Salvini in the past has promised “to take a bulldozer and flatten all the Roma camps”.
Luigi Di Maio—leader of the League’s coalition partner the Five Star Movement (M5S)—said a census on an ethnic basis was not constitutional. So “we can’t do it,” he said. Which isn’t exactly reassuring.
According to ERRC, “Every single camp which has ever been ‘closed’ to date was forcefully evicted. Its inhabitants have been left on the street or moved to segregated shelters.
“Di Maio and Salvini’s radical new solution for the so-called ‘nomad issue’ is to continue feeding into harmful and discriminatory stereotypes.
“And then if all else fails, they will just drive them out.”
The League took 17 percent of the vote in the March elections—only about half of the 33 percent won by M5S.
But Salvini’s ministry controls the police and the handling of migrants.
His strategy is to grandstand to keep moving the government to the right—and it is working.
The latest polls show that the League is now the most popular party in Italy with 30 percent public approval.
It has overtaken for the first time M5S, which stands at 29 percent.
Salvini recently refused to allow a ship that had rescued hundreds of migrants from the Mediterranean to dock at Italian ports. His coalition partners backed him.
Santino Spinelli, one of Italy’s best-known Roma musicians, said, “Now that the interior minister had closed Italy’s ports to people escaping war and famine, he was trying to increase his popularity by hunting Gypsies.”
According to Rosi, “Roma and migrants are an
for right wing Italian parties and for the League in particular.”
The census call was a deliberate threat. Rosi told Socialist Worker, “Using Roma as scapegoats is very easy for Salvini because of the widespread prejudices and stereotypes against them.
“In Italy there are between 120,000 and 180,000 Roma.
“But the most visible part is the 26,000 Roma living in camps.
“The Roma in Italy are victims of housing segregation. Some of these camps were built by the state.”
The formal camps are distributed in 87 different towns and cities across the country.
In Rome there are 17 camps of which just six, including River Village, are formally recognised.
Some are made up of shipping containers, many have no running water or electricity.
To enter many you have to pass a police checkpoint. Hasimi, who lives in the River Village camp, said, “I’ll do you a deal. I come and live in your house and you come and live here. You’d feel suicidal.”
Hasimi says it is hard to find work. “They ask you where you’re from and when you tell them you’re Roma they tell you they won’t hire you,” he said. “It’s racism.”
The camps are owned by the state following a law by a previous League interior minister.
A “nomad emergency decree” forced people into the state camps.
In 2008 they proposed a Roma register and the collection of fingerprints from all of the Roma camp inhabitants, children included.
It was never implemented.
Rosi told Socialist Worker, “The rest of Roma people not in camps living in Italy often do not reveal their identity for fear of widespread racism against them.
“Most of the Roma are invisible and therefore so are their lives and their opinions.”
Elena Risi is part of Roma human rights organisation Associazione 21 Luglio. “Unfortunately politics about Roma people has always been discriminatory,” she told Socialist Worker.
“The main discrimination issues faced by Roma people living in Italy are housing segregation and forced evictions.
“According to our research 43 percent of Roma living in camps are Italian, the others are stateless.
“There were 230 forced eviction operations against the camps during 2017. We are concerned at what happens next.”
Marcello Zuinisi is from Associazione Nazione Rom, a group that campaigns for the rights of Roma people.
He told Socialist Worker that last week his association went to Brussels seeking a European Commission investigation into the use of £6 billion of structural funds.
The money was given to Italy to provide housing, jobs, schooling and health care to Roma communities and homeless people.
“We didn’t get anything in the camps, not even an aspirin,” he said.
Clampdown fuels murder on street
A racist murdered Soumaila Sacko, a Malian trade unionist, in Italy on 2 June.
Sacko was campaigning to improve the conditions of thousands of African workers who pick fruit and vegetables in Calabria— the “toe” of Italy.
Sacko was helping two others find metal sheets in a disused factory to use as roofs for their shacks in the San Ferdinando camp when a man opened fire from a car.
It was hours after Salvini had said he would kick out 500,000 immigrants.
“The good times for illegals are over,” he declared. “Get ready to pack your bags.”
As it happens Soumaila was a legal resident. That week at least 60 migrants, most of them Tunisians, drowned trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa. Salvini claimed Tunisia “often and willingly exports convicts”.
One of the camp’s residents said, “They think we are animals. They shoot us as if we were animals.”
There’s no running water and electricity is borrowed from a passing cable.
All over the camp there are remnants of the various fires that have ravaged it—in January a blaze ripped through half the tents, killing a 26 year old Nigerian woman Becky Moses.
There was another fire last week.
More than 90 percent of the workers are living legally in Italy—asylum seekers or with residency permits.
Around 75 percent of them are employed without a contract and all are paid based on what they collect—
40p for a crate of oranges, 80p for a crate of mandarins.
Aboubakar Soumahoro is a representative for the USB union where Sacko was an activist.
“We are exploited and no one defends us, we are the targets of violence,” he said.
“There has never been any ‘good times’ for us,” he added, in a reference to Salvini’s anti-migrant rhetoric.
The workers struck this week and a demonstration supported by the Roma organisations took place this Saturday.