'Specter of Mussolini' evoked as Italy’s Salvini orders full census & expulsion of Roma ‘illegals’

'Specter of Mussolini' evoked as Italy’s Salvini orders full census & expulsion of Roma ‘illegals’
Italy’s interior minister and leader of the right-wing Lega party, Matteo Salvini, has told his officials to “prepare a dossier” on the country’s Roma and plans to expel the undocumented among them. The move has provoked outrage.

“At the ministry, I have them preparing a dossier on the Roma issue in Italy,” Salvini, who is one of the leaders of the ruling Eurosceptic coalition, told the regional TeleLombardia broadcaster. He then added that the dossier would involve a “census of Roma in Italy,” which will help the Interior Ministry to “see who, how, how many.”

The minister went on to vow that all Roma who have no valid documents and reside in Italy illegally would be “expelled,” under agreements with other states, while Italian Roma “unfortunately have to be kept at home.” He also rushed to explain that his initiative has nothing to do with racial profiling.

“We will have a register and not a profile,” Salvini said, adding that the ministry has “no intention” of “profiling [these people] or taking the fingerprints of anyone.” He then explained that the major aim of the census is to monitor the situation in the Roma camps across Italy, including the illegal ones, as well as to “protect … thousands of [Roma] children, who are not allowed to attend school regularly because their kinfolk prefer to involve them in delinquency.”

“We also want to control how the millions of euro that come from European funds [to help Roma in Italy] are spent,” the minister said, as he listed the goals of his initiative.

‘Outrageous racism’

The move was immediately slammed by Italy’s left-wing politicians, who branded it “ethnic cleansing” while describing the idea of a dossier on the Roma community “chilling.”

“We cannot allow a census for a race,” Emmanuele Fiano, an Italian MP from the center-left Democratic Party said, as cited by La Repubblica daily. “People can be divided … by their behavior, by their choices but not by their birth. It did not end well 80 years ago,” the politician said, apparently referring to the times of the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and calling on the current government “not to try it again.”

“The way is short from a census to a concentration camp. Salvini apparently decided to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the racial laws,” Chiara Gribaudo, an MP from the Democratic Party, wrote in a tweet, in another reference to the Mussolini era.

“The majority of the Roma are EU citizens,” Nicola Fratoianni, another MP and the leader of the Italian Left Party, said, adding that conducting such a census would be akin to “profiling the French people living in our country.” He also went as far as to implicitly call Salvini a “racist and [an] idiot.”

The Interior Minister’s actions were also sharply criticized by the former Italian Prime Minsiter Paolo Gentiloni, who tweeted: “Yesterday refugees, today Roma, tomorrow guns for everyone. How hard it is to be bad.”

Various Italian NGOs were equally critical of Salvini’s initiative. "The interior minister does not seem to know that a census on the basis of ethnicity is not permitted by law," Carlo Stasolla, president of the Associazione 21 Luglio, a group which defends the rights of the Roma community, pointed out. He also added that the data on those who “live in formal and informal settlements already exist while the few undocumented Roma are effectively stateless, and therefore cannot be expelled.”

The controversy soon moved beyond the Italian borders; the Party of European Socialists (PES), an umbrella group uniting left-leaning parties from the EU and Norway, also lambasted the initiative. “Disgusted by Salvini's announcement of a Roma census. We can't tolerate this shameless profiling,” the group said in a Twitter post.

Kenneth Roth, the CEO of Human Rights Watch, an international humanitarian NGO, also assailed the Italian minister with criticism. “Outrageous racism is the honest way to describe an interior minister (and party leader) who says it's "unfortunate" that Italy cannot deport its Roma citizens,” he said. 

New ‘Hitler’ or ‘effective’ minister?

People on social media were mostly critical of the interior minister’s initiative; many accused him of having “no heart,” called him racist and even compared him to the German Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.

Others, however, praised Salvini’s “effective” actions in tackling migration and expressed their support for his policies. Some people also cited the results of an opinion poll conducted by the Italian SWG market research company for an Italian private TV Channel La7, which showed that public backing for Salvini’s Lega party is on the rise. “Anti-immigration stance is paying off,” they said.

Salvini had already provoked controversy with his policies earlier in June, when, apparently in line with his election promises, he refused the docking of the migrant rescue ship ‘Aquarius’ with 629 people on board and redirected the vessel to the Island of Malta. The move was followed by a spat between the Italian government and the EU, with Rome accusing Europe of “not showing solidarity” with Italy on the migration issue.

READ MORE: ‘Italy left alone in crisis’: After shutting ports to migrant rescue ship, Rome rebukes EU criticism

The Roma people living in Italy account for 130,000-170,000, or 0.23% of the total Italian population, according to data provided by the Catholic University of Milan (UCSC). About 50 percent of them are Italian citizens.

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