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Factsheet on the State of Emergency: Italy’s Disastrous Policies for Roma

26 March 2013

In May 2008, Italy declared a “State of Emergency”, to combat the so-called “Roma menace” under which Italian authorities were afforded extraordinary powers. Human rights organisations and several intergovernmental bodies questioned the legitimacy of the declaration of State of Emergency. However, despite domestic and international criticisms, Italian authorities used these powers in various ways. The European Roma Rights Centre challenged the State of Emergency decree before the Italian courts, calling it illegal. On 4 November 2011, the Council of State ruled that the State of Emergency was illegal.

Turning points

According to unofficial figures, there are 110,000-180,000 Roma, Sinti and Caminanti people in Italy; approximately half of this population bear Italian citizenship, while the rest are from EU countries and the former Yugoslavia. Among the latter group, many are stateless, and lack citizenship documents for any country. Mostly these groups are in Italy on a permanent basis. The end of the year 2007 marked a turning point for Roma, Sinti and Caminanti in Italy. On 31 October 2007, an Italian woman was murdered in Rome, allegedly by a Romanian Roma. On 10 May, 2008 in Naples, Ponticelli district, a 17-year-old Romani girl was accused of trying to kidnap a six month-old-child. These incidents unleashed the manifestation of anti-Romani sentiments which had built up over some time, although, in the first case, it was proven later that the murderer was not of Romani origin. These manifestations took a violent form as well. Starting from early 2008, violence targeting Romani individuals and communities took place in several cities, including attacks on camps.

Italy’s response: State of Emergency

The response of the Italian authorities was based on “security” concerns. Italian authorities, both central and local, developed security measures against the “Roma menace,” instead of developing policies to address the actual problems of Roma and Sinti communities. This populist approach demonised Roma communities, and did very little to address the real issues of integration or inclusion of Romani people, some of whom had lived in Italy for decades.  

The “security” perspective reached its peak by declaring a “State of Emergency”, first in May 2008 in Lombardy, Campania and Lazio and later extended to Piedmont and Veneto. The State of Emergency defined the presence of Roma in Italy as a threat to public security and appointed Prefects as Special Commissioners for the so-called nomad Emergency in the regions of Lombardy, Lazio and Campania in 2008 and Veneto and Piedmont in 2009. The State of Emergency was extended annually until December 2011.

In a democratic society, a state of emergency constitutes an extreme response to extraordinary circumstances. Under a state of emergency regime, the public authorities are equipped with extraordinary powers, and there always is a potential to suspend fundamental rights.

Fundamental rights curbed

This was the case in Italy. Italian authorities monitored camps and carried out census of residents (including children), taking photos and requesting documents to identify and record residents. Furthermore, the State of Emergency saw Roma forcibly and relentlessly evicted, excluded from education, fingerprinted, segregated, harassed and expelled. These actions brought about violations of the rights to adequate housing and education. The census also raised grave concerns about data protection.

The ERRC and other rights organisations strongly criticised the State of Emergency from the start. Rights organisations stated that the declaration of State of Emergency was illegal, illegitimate and unfounded in a democratic society. The ERRC advised the Italian authorities to address the long-lasting problems of Roma and Sinti communities rather than singling out a group for increased police scrutiny.

Forced evictions

Italian authorities have also carried out an aggressive policy of evicting Roma camps. Authorities have carried out more than 500 evictions of Roma camps in Rome since  2009, and from January 2010 to May 2011 alone, there were almost 300 evictions in Milan. Most of these evictions have not met international standards, lacking among other things, adequate and reasonable notice for all affected persons prior to the scheduled date of eviction, adequate consultation; and failing to provide adequate alternative accommodation.

Legal action against the State of Emergency

The ERRC began its legal challenge against the State of Emergency before the Italian courts in 2008. The first action was on 29 July 2008 when the ERRC challenged the Decree of State of Emergency before the regional administrative tribunal of Lazio claiming that the Decree wass unlawful, unfounded, discriminatory, and lacked motivation. However, this court ruled in favour of the State of Emergency only ordering some modifications. On 5 August 2009, the ERRC appealed before the Council of State.

Council of State slams the State of Emergency

On 4 November 2011, the Council of State ruled that the State of Emergency was illegal and unfounded. The Council of State ruled that the government had not investigated sufficiently before issuing the Decree, and  established that the presence of Roma did not create an emergency situation in Italy. With the ruling, the decree of 2008 and the acts based on it were declared invalid, effective immediately. The Council of State acknowledged that some practices of the local authorities were discriminatory. Following this decision, the ERRC sent a letter to authorities in Italy urging an immediate end to all anti-Roma activities organised as part of the State of Emergency which included, immediately halting forced evictions, which violate international and domestic law; ending identity checks and the control of access in formal camps; ending the policy and practice of segregating Roma in camps; and destroying records of personal data, including fingerprints and photographs collected through the ethnically-motivated census actions.

The ERRC also called on the Italian authorities to fulfil their obligations under European and international law to ensure the inclusion of Roma in education, employment, housing and health care.

Council of State undermines its own decision

The response of the Italian government was to appeal the Council of State decision before the Court of Cassation in February 2012. The followed the end of the period of the latest extension of the State of Emergency to December 2011 and the government’s decision not to extend or renew it further. At the same time, the government approved a National Roma Inclusion Strategy, as requested by the European Commission. The fact that the government approved a strategy on inclusion while appealing the decision on the state of emergency showed the lack of joined-up thinking on Roma issues in Italy. The Government also requested that the decision of the Council of State be suspended until the appeal is resolved.

On 9 May 2012, the Council of State accepted the Italian Government’s request to suspend the effects of its decision of 4 November 2011 which declared the State of Emergency was illegal. The new decision of the Council of State allowed the Italian authorities to go ahead with various contracts started under the State of Emergency, which may have a negative impact on the housing situation of Roma and Sinti living in formal and semi-formal camps.

The State of Emergency is now before the Court of Cassation, the highest court in Italy.

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