Council of Europe blasts Italy over Roma fingerprinting

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Europe’s human rights watchdog has issued an unusually strong-worded statement hinting that a plan by the Italian authorities to fingerprint Roma amounts to fascism.

Although Italy’s Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, who is the leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, does not consider his plans for a census of the Roma in Italy based on fingerprinting to be discriminatory, the oldest European institution, which specialises in human rights, sees it differently. 

“This proposal invites historical analogies which are so obvious that they do not even have to be spelled out,” Council of Europe Secretary General Terry Davis said in a written statement. 

Davis restricted his criticism to the minister, stopping short of condemning Silvio Berlusconi’s entire government. 

“While I believe that Italian democracy and its institutions are mature enough to prevent any such ideas becoming laws, I am nevertheless concerned that a senior member of the government of one of Council of Europe member states is reported to have made such a proposal,” Davis states. 

Maroni is justifying his proposal for a Roma census by the need to better control them, since they often move from town to town to avoid checks. This also involves children, who are sometimes exploited by their parents to work as beggars, he said, adding that such parents would lose the custody of their children. 

The minister’s proposals have also been attacked internally in Italy. A Centrist opposition leader, Pier Ferdinando Casini, called them “racist”. Human rights groups also strongly condemned Italy’s plan to fingerprint Roma. But an unscientific TV poll showed Maroni’s plans to better control the Roma had the overwhelming support of 80% of the Italians. 

Luciano Scagliotti from the Italian section of the European Network Against Racism told EURACTIV that a law or a measure based on ethnic belonging can have far-reaching consequences. 

“It’s a violation not only of general principles [but also] a violation of European Treaties, so it cannot be acceptable,” he said. “It is exactly the same like the Nazi Germany census of the Jewish in 1938,” he further elaborated. 

Scagliotti added that a number of specialised NGOs are preparing a dossier for the European Commission to ask for the same sanctions to be imposed on Italy as those slapped on Austria in 2000, when the Freedom Party of extremist politician Joerg Haider joined the government. 

Rosy Bindi, formerly family minister in the centre-left government which was ousted in January, said the initiative was "unacceptable". It would lead to an "ethnic register" that would "treat Roma children as if they were hardened criminals", she said. 

Vincenzo Spadafora, the head of Unicef in Italy, said he was "seriously concerned", adding that the government would be acting in a discriminatory fashion "unless it fingerprinted every child in Italy". 

Amos Luzzatto, the former head of the Union of Jewish Communities in Italy, warned the fingerprinting measure set a dangerous precedent. "You start like this then you move on to the exclusion from schools, separated classes and widespread discrimination," he said. Recalling Italy's fascist past, he added: "Italy is a country that has lost its memory." 

Amnesty International and the Anti-Defamation League believe that the idea behind fingerprinting Roma is to scare them into leaving major cities and prepare the ground for mass deportations. 

Resentment towards Roma in Italy has grown following the establishment of many illegal camps in recent years. Some camps outside Naples were even torched by locals. 

Some 160,000 Roma are estimated to live in Italy, 70,000 of whom are Italian nationals. The rest are immigrants from Eastern Europe, mainly from Romania (roughly 60,000), according to the NGO Opera Nomadi. 

Silvio Berlusconi strongly built on resentment against Roma in his election campaign. Only 12 days after his government was formed, the European Commission warned the Italian government not to take "extreme measures" against Roma. The Romanian authorities also voiced concern that resentment against Roma will affect law-abiding Romanians living in Italy (EURACTIV 21/05/08).

Berlusconi has recently backtracked over a controversial bill that would make illegal immigration a criminal offence following heavy criticism from the United Nations, the Vatican and within the European Parliament. 

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