Under Meloni, the plight of Italy’s Roma will only get worse

As Meloni emboldens fascists in Italy, the EU must not ignore the victimisation of the Romani people, as it has done in the past.

Italian police block locals from entering a Roma camp in a suburb of Naples May 13, 2008. While Romania warned of an outbreak of xenophobia against its people in Italy, locals set fire to two Roma camps in Naples -- previously evacuated by police -- after a 17-year old Roma girl was accused of trying to kidnap an Italian baby. Picture taken May 13, 2008. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca/Agnfoto (ITALY)
Italian police stand in front of a Roma camp in a suburb of Naples after locals set fire to two Roma camps in Naples previously evacuated by police - on May 13, 2008 [File: Reuters/Ciro De Luca]

On October 22, Giorgia Meloni, leader of the right-wing Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party, was sworn in as Italy’s prime minister. She formed a government with two other parties notorious for their populist and racist rhetoric and policies: Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, and Matteo Salvini’s Lega (League).

Many across Europe are rightfully concerned about the impact the most right-wing government in Italy since the end of World War II will have on the continent. And so are the Roma of Italy. Their situation has been untenable for years. Regardless of who was in power, they faced regular police harassment, forced evictions, and hate crimes.

But with this right-wing coalition in power, the plight of the Romani people may get much worse. Both Berlusconi and Salvini have a long track record of anti-Roma policies, while Meloni has a history of racist anti-Roma rhetoric. If and when the new government starts its assault on Roma communities, the European Union must not stay silent, as it has so often done over the past 15 years.

The fascist past

Despite living on the Italian peninsula since the 14th century, Romani people have historically been seen as outsiders in Italian society. That is why they, alongside Jews, were targeted by the fascist state from the 1920s to the 1940s. In 1926, just four years after coming to power, Benito Mussolini’s fascist government issued an order to expel all “foreign Gypsies” and “cleanse the country of all Gypsy caravans”. Those who remained were regularly harassed and arrested.

In 1940, his interior ministry started the internment of Roma and Sinti in Italian concentration camps where many were either murdered, deported to Nazi death camps, or died of hunger or poor conditions.

Italy has never really come to terms with its fascist history and, after the end of World War II, Romani people continued to be viewed with suspicion and hatred. When Roma from the Balkans began arriving in Italy in the 1960s, the local authorities started putting them in so-called “nomad camps” based on the racist assumption that Romani people were listless vagrants. But the Yugoslav Roma were coming from a sedentary lifestyle, never having been nomadic in their lives.

These policies persisted and, by the 1980s, received financial and legislative support in some Italian provinces. At the same time, negative perceptions in Italian society that Roma are criminals and illegal immigrants grew. In the 2000s, this allowed populist politicians like Berlusconi to politicise the issue and use it for electoral gain.

Berlusconi’s ‘nomad emergency’

Shortly after forming his third government in May 2008, Berlusconi declared his so-called “nomad emergency” and subjected the Roma to police intimidation, illegal detentions and deportations. He justified the fingerprinting of Romani children, ethnic censuses of Romani people, and deployment of troops to crack down on so-called “Gypsy criminality”.

During his tenure, the construction of segregated “nomad camps” became the de facto policy of choice for provincial authorities to accommodate Roma who could not be deported under a 2007 law, allowing expulsions of people deemed to “threaten” public safety. In later years, after the camps were neglected and left without access to basic services, the authorities started forcefully evicting Romani families from them.

The Italian government promised to close these camps in its previous 2012-2020 National Strategy for the Inclusion of Roma, Sinti and Caminanti but, in practice, it started demolishing homes and turning families out onto the street without providing them with alternative accommodation.

In 2011, the Council of State, a consultative body that ensures the legality of administrative activities, ruled that the “nomad emergency” was “unfounded, unmotivated and unlawful” and in 2013, the Court of Cassation upheld its decision. Nevertheless, Berlusconi’s policies became a template for state violence against the Roma. Police raids and intimidation, the systematic use of punitive forced evictions and surveillance tactics against the Roma have continued under successive governments.

The European Roma Rights Centre’s census of forced evictions estimates that between 2017 and 2021 there were 187 evictions of Romani families, resulting in 3,156 people becoming homeless.

Salvini’s incitement to violence

Berlusconi’s anti-Roma campaign also paved the way for the far-right in mainstream Italian politics. Salvini saw its electoral success and embraced it fully. In 2013, he took control of what was then called Lega Nord (Northern League) and, in his bid to transform the party, built a political platform almost entirely on scapegoating and securitising Romani people and immigrants.

In June 2018, Salvini became deputy prime minister and interior minister in a coalition cabinet with the populist Five Star Movement. Within a month of taking office, he closed Italian ports to ships carrying refugees and called for a census of the Roma to facilitate their deportation, noting that “unfortunately” those holding Italian citizenship could not be deported. He also threatened to remove Romani children from their families if they were not sent to school.

Salvini’s stint as interior minister incited anti-Roma actions throughout Italy. Following his calls for a census, the Regional Council of Lombardy passed a motion to initiate “mapping of the Roma and Sinti settlements” to “counteract the situations of urban illegality and degradation and to guarantee civil coexistence”.

Far-right groups such as Forza Nuova and Casa Pound also organised anti-Roma marches and incited violent hate crimes against Romani communities. In April 2019, teenagers in Naples threw stones at two Romani mothers and their children and threatened to stab them. The same month, in a suburb of Rome, a 300-strong mob led by Casa Pound set fire to dumpsters, shouted racist insults and tried to prevent the placement of 70 Roma in a local reception centre. While dozens performed fascist salutes, the crowd chanted “those b******* must burn” and “they must die of hunger”.

In May that year, in another suburb of Rome, a Romani family had to be escorted by police in and out of a social housing building because a mob led by Casa Pound screamed threats of rape and murder at them.

The most anti-Roma government

Having lived through a decade and a half of Berlusconi and Salvini’s anti-Roma policies, Italy’s Roma have good reason to fear what comes next, as Meloni heads a coalition with both. Although she herself has mostly stayed away from inciteful Salvini-style rhetoric, she nevertheless holds nativist beliefs and anti-Roma ideas and embraces the policies of institutional violence inherited from Berlusconi.

What is worse is that her party’s origins lie firmly in Italy’s fascist movement. Meloni herself has said that Mussolini was “a good politician” and “everything he did, he did for Italy”. She appears to believe in the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, that white Europeans are being deliberately replaced by non-European immigrants in what constitutes a form of genocide.

Judging by the past record of Meloni and her coalition partners, their government will not only continue anti-Roma policies but will also step up toxic, racist politics in Italy. Her rise to power has emboldened fascist sympathisers, as became apparent on October 31, when thousands chanted slogans and performed fascist salutes in Mussolini’s hometown to mark the 100th anniversary of his march on Rome and seizure of power.

This should concern the rest of the EU, too. Brussels was silent when Berlusconi declared Roma a security threat and forced them from their homes. Salvini’s hate speech was often met with outrage, but little action. In 2017, the European Commission blocked a report recommending sanctions against Italy over its mistreatment of Roma. Then in 2019, it closed its file on possible legal action against Italy over discrimination against Romani people in housing.

After 15 years of ignoring antigypsyism in Italy, the EU now has a chance to make amends. The dangers are too great to continue to turn a blind eye to the steady rise of fascism in Italy and its threat to Romani lives.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.