Human rights activists and politicians in Italy and abroad have slammed Matteo Salvini, the Italian interior minister, after he announced plans to count the country’s Roma community with an eye to expelling those who do not have Italian nationality.
The far-right politician, who is also one of the country’s two deputy prime ministers, defended his position on Tuesday, a day after stirring controversy by saying on TV that he had commissioned “a dossier on the Roma situation in Italy” to see how many there are in the country.
He evoked the idea of expelling many of them, adding that “unfortunately we have to keep Italian Roma people in Italy because you can’t expel them”.
Salvini, who caused uproar last month when he barred an NGO-operated rescue ship from landing hundreds of mostly African refugees and migrants in Italy, ran into similar protests for his latest remarks.
Opposition MPs condemned the idea of a census as “racist” and “fascist”, while members of the newly-established ruling coalition also criticised his comments.
The opposition centre-left Democratic Party’s leader Matteo Orfini tweeted: “If we really want to carry out the census, I would start with the census of racists and fascists. To better avoid them.”
Luigi Di Maio, fellow deputy prime minister and leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement that makes up the coalition alongside Salvini’s far-right League party, said any census based on ethnicity would be “unconstitutional”.
A Roma Nation Association statement noted that the authorities had carried out a count of the community last year and called for a meeting with Salvini at the earliest opportunity.
The European Union also weighed in on the controversy. EU Commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein told journalists that “as a general rule, we cannot deport a European citizen based on ethnic criteria”.
Italy’s Jewish community said the idea of a census drew parallels with measures targeting Jews under fascist war-time leader Benito Mussolini.
The “announcement is worrying and evokes memories from just 80 years ago which are sadly increasingly forgotten”, said community leader, Noemi Di Segni.
Despite the criticism, Salvini stuck to his guns on Tuesday.
“I’m not giving up and I’m pushing ahead! The Italians and their safety first,” he wrote on social media.
But confronted with widespread anger, Salvini’s League party said in a separate statement “it is not our intention to record or take anyone’s fingerprints.
It added: “Our goal is a recognition of the situation of Roma camps. We intend to protect thousands of children who are not allowed to attend school regularly.”
Salvini has repeatedly taken aim at the Roma community, making promises to bulldoze Roma camps during his election campaign.
According to a report by Association 21 Luglio, which works with the Roma community, there are between 120,000 and 180,000 Roma living across Italy.
Here’s a round-up of social media reaction to Salvini’s comments:
Translation: “Refugees yesterday, Roma today, tomorrow guns for all. How exhausting it is being bad,” Paolo Gentiloni, a centre-left Italian politician and former politician wrote.
Ieri i rifugiati, oggi i Rom, domani le pistole per tutti. Quanto è faticoso essere cattivo
— Paolo Gentiloni (@PaoloGentiloni) June 18, 2018
Rachele Salvatelli, a PhD researcher, said:
Something scary is happening in Italy right now. Interior minster #Salvini is calling for a Roma census. Making a census on people's ethnicity. Where is that I've heard this before? OH. RIGHT. #Salvinischedacitutti
— Rachele Salvatelli (@r_salvatelli) June 19, 2018
Ana Gomes, Socialist Member of the European Parliament, wrote:
— Ana Gomes (@AnaMartinsGomes) June 18, 2018
Kathleen Van Brempt, a member of the European Parliament, tweeted:
First they came for the #refugees. And I did not speak out, because I was not a refugee. Then they came for the #Roma. And I did not speak out, because I was not a Roma. Then they came for the rest of us. And there was no one left to speak for us. #Salvini
— Kathleen Van Brempt (@kvanbrempt) June 19, 2018
Author and activist Harry Leslie Smith said this is “how it all started in 1930s Germany”, referring to the time when the Nazis reached power:
And this folks is how it all started in 1930s Germany. To be quite honest if the EU doesn't stop this it will show the institution is beginning to rot like a corpse in the sun. #roma https://t.co/2g94AXiXpe
— John Smith (son of Harry Leslie Smith) (@Harryslaststand) June 18, 2018