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16 Mar, 2009 06:12

No dolce vita for Romani in Italy

The 600,000 strong gypsy community in Italy is fighting the prejudices of the population and the state, as the government's hard-line approach to the minority is pushing them into the margins of society.

The Romani community has an illegal tent city inside Rome and it is growing by the day. Italians are calling it a gypsy invasion. They say the Romani people have come there in search of a better life.

There are dozens of illegal camps in Rome. People there live without electricity or running water, but even that, they say, is better than where they came from.

The majority of the so-called gypsies in Italy are illegal aliens. They have been declared criminals by the state, but among them there are Italian and other EU nationals whose only crime is living this way.

“We hope we can get a house and a right to receive child benefits. We’re here to give our children an education, so they can have a future,” says one Romani tent camp inhabitant.

Police comb the gypsy camps around the clock, following incidents of attacks and rapes in the Romani-dominated neighborhoods. Every other month the illegal camps are taken apart, only to force its residents to change location.

The authorities say they are only responding to Italians worried about their safety.

“If you’re alone, you’re scared, you don’t know who the person is on the other side of the street,” says Giacomo Stucchi, a representative of the League of North Party.

For centuries, Europeans have been at odds with the Romani community, but here the scope of the conflict is truly Italian. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's ruling coalition party, the Northern League, has been pushing for hard-line measures, like fingerprinting the entire Romani community.

“We are used as scapegoats by politicians to cast dividends at badmouthing Romani. It’s easier to discriminate against us than to integrate. Gypsies get mentioned only when the right-wingers need support,” says Nazareno Guarnieri, Romani foundation president.

They’ve become the biggest underclass of Italian society, causing some human rights groups and the Red Cross to be worried. The government’s approach, they say, is only pushing the Romani into further isolation.