An Outbreak of Anthropology in Italy: A New Government Publication Describes Roma as

07 May 2002

Piero Colacicchi1

A new government publication in Italy reveals a disturbing official approach toward Roma. In June 2001, Not Only Exploited or Violent: Children and Adolescents of the Year 2000: Report on the Condition of Infancy and Adolescence in Italy (Non Solo Sfruttati o Violenti. Bambini e adolescenti del 2000. Relazione sulla condizione dell'infanzia e dell'adolescenza in Italia2), a 360-page book, was published jointly by three Italian governmental institutions: The President of the Council of Ministers, The National Observatory on Childhood, and The National Center for the Documentation and Analysis for Childhood and Adolescence. The book was distributed to many politicians, magistrates, social workers and representatives of non-governmental organisations.

Not Only Exploited or Violent is divided into three sections. The first section addresses basic problems of minors in Italy in the following areas: family relationships, school, free time, violence against minors, violence among minors and health. The second section depicts the strategies of various government departments for dealing with these issues. The third section discusses general strategies of promotion and protection of the rights of the child. One could call this volume a basic study and a field worker's manual. In the first section of the book is a chapter dedicated to foreign children's rights, which includes a 10-page segment entitled "Gypsy children and adolescents". The chapter is apparently intended as the Italian government's official position on how to regard – and how to deal with – the question of "Gypsy children and adolescents".

The approach of the authors is established early on. A positive point (aside from the frequent usage of the derogatory term "Gypsy" ("zingaro")) is made in the first part of the chapter: "What must also be borne in mind in matters pertaining to education is the Gypsy viewpoint, which means taking as our starting point a fact which logically ought to form the basis for any reflection on the Gypsies, but which instead gets downplayed or, even worse, ignored." Such an idea put forth by a government source would be laudable, if one were not confronted, in the very next sentence, with the following:

Anthropologists emphasise that the Gypsies are not simply a disadvantaged part of our industrial society, but rather are an example of another type of society altogether: non-industrial society. From a structural standpoint, the Gypsy way of making a living in fact presents many more analogies to that of the Pygmies and Native Americans than to our own. While industrial society produces the food people require, the Gypsies, Pygmies, Native Americans and many other peoples, meet their requirements by instead looking to their ecosystem for foods found in nature. However, whereas for the latter peoples the ecosystem is natural (forest, steppe, desert, sea), for many other cultures the ecosystem where they live, and therefore look for means of support, is manmade. This means that Gypsies procure their food, or the money used to purchase it, through contact with members of sedentary cultures. They still behave as they did when they were nomads, drawing for a livelihood on sedentary non-Gypsy societies with which they live, regardless of whether these are industrial, peasant or pastoral.

Later in the chapter, this line of thought is developed further:

The Rroma Gypsies did not immigrate to Italy seeking gainful employment in the labour force, but rather with the idea of remaining outside it, living by 'gathering'. [...] the male children must go out with their mothers and sisters into their 'natural' environment, which is to say, in the midst of non-Gypsies, to search for food or for the money to buy it. They beg, but there are also those who steal; inasmuch as they are 'gatherers' they feel no guilt from having deprived some non-Gypsy of the ownership of some object: They believe that they have merely substituted themselves for the other person in possession of that object in order to perform the noble deed of feeding the rest of the family.

The publication leads one to believe that the Italian government feels the need for anthropologists to explain the "Gypsy viewpoint" because it believes Roma are inferior beings who can hardly express themselves. What we see here is the fundamental thought behind all decisions pertaining to Roma and Sinti in Italy: They are considered primitive – primitive to the point that they can be compared to "Pygmies" and Native Americans (Pygmies and Native Americans are apparently viewed as primitive by some Italian anthropologists). The anthropologist who wrote these statements and the government departments that published them allude to the fact that they believe Roma are exploiters and thieves by nature. The chapter eventually states this outright:

In considering the various Gypsy populations present in Italy, scholars, judges and social workers have ascertained that: a) the Sinti generally do not depend on illegal activities for a livelihood (even though they sometimes do have their problems with the law); b) the Italian Rrom [...] make their living mainly from activities on the borderline of legality (which at times they, too, cross); c) the Rroma [editorial note: here the authors apparently mean Roma of foreign descent] live almost entirely on quasi-legal (for example, begging) or illegal activities (for example, break-ins, pocket-picking and recently the local sale of hard drugs).

In October 2000, the European Roma Rights Center published the Country Report Campland: Racial Segregation of Roma in Italy.3 In this report, the ERRC stated that: "Underpinning the Italian government's approach to Roma is the conviction that Roma are 'nomads'. [...] The 'nomad' theory is used time and again as the justification for excluding Roma from the responsibility for decision-making – normally afforded adult human beings." Now we have an even more radical notion: Roma may not all be nomads anymore, but rather savage exploiters.

There are presently 60,000-80,000 Italian Romani citizens – primarily Roma in the South and Sinti in the North. From the early 1960s to the present, almost that number again of immigrant Roma and Romani refugees have arrived in Italy from the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Additionally, there is a growing presence of Roma from other Eastern European countries. Roma who are Italian, having lived in the same southern cities for centuries, have some chance to escape discriminatory treatment in housing if not in jobs, whereas most Sinti with Italian citizenship, and practically all immigrant Roma, live in camps. Although one would not learn it from the government's new book, these camps are sometimes small, sometimes large and often under continuous surveillance. All camps have minimal sanitary or infrastructural facilities and some have none at all.

Immigrant Roma have a much harder life than other groups, not only because of obvious difficulties – different language and customs – but especially because they are subjected to a legal regime that is difficult to navigate and that has, over the last 10 years, become ever more rigid. Under the present government, a new law is being prepared which, if approved, would make it much easier to expel non-nationals without regularised status, including those whose humanitarian residence permits have expired. Among Roma who have escaped from Bosnia or Kosovo during the recent ethnic wars, many risk being considered deserters in their country of origin, which can mean a jail sentence or worse, as well as being subjected to the discriminatory burdens associated with being Romani in today's southeastern Europe.

Roma protest at Rome's La Sapienza University, with other immigrant and minority groups, on January 15, 2002. The march was in opposition to the government's proposed harsh anti-immigration law. The bill, proposed by extremist government coalition members, Gianfranco Fini and Umberto Bossi, would introduce criminal sanctions for persons caught illegally entering the country, or who return to Italy after being expelled; strictly link residence permits to work contracts; extend the length of time individuals may be detained while awaiting extradition (from 30 to 60 days); and allow for placement of asylum seekers in detention while awaiting review of claims.
Photo: Stefano Montesi

There are additionally a number of stateless Roma in Italy. These are frequently teenagers or young adults born in Italy and generally they have few prospects for becoming Italian citizens because of conflicting and restrictive legal regimes. There are no signs that any new laws or regulations to redress their condition will be adopted any time soon. Children are most victimised by the way of life imposed on their parents. Hardly any Romani child has ever reached a school level above elementary in Italy. Many work at home, watching their younger brothers and sisters while their parents – generally their mothers – go begging. Many such children have to go begging themselves, as a result of the miserable economic conditions of the family due to the parent's unemployment. Some minors unfortunately are even sent to steal. The fact that this is due to poverty is clearly demonstrated by the drop in the amount of illegal activities among those Roma who have received state help in finding work and decent housing, as I have been able to observe personally during 10 years of voluntary work in the Florence jail. Abuse by police and judicial authorities is reported on a nearly continuous basis, while court rulings in defence of Roma rights are practically unheard of in Italy. Not Only Exploited or Violent has nothing to say about these facts.

Promoting such a general and uncompromising perspective effectively leads the reader to believe that Roma do nothing but exploit and steal from their natural environment, the people around them. It therefore becomes an easy decision for the reader to support negative government policies on Roma. Segregating these dangerous nomads and hunter-gathering scavengers in camps, and keeping them as isolated from society as possible, becomes the only logical, safe choice for non-Roma – that or sending Roma back to their country of origin.


  1. Piero Colacicchi is vice-president of the Association for the Protection of the Rights of Minorities (Associazione per la difesa dei diritti delle minoranze), a Florence-based non-governmental organisation. He has known and worked with Roma, especially immigrant Roma, for over 16 years. He has written the introduction to a book on Yugoslav Romani poetry: Romané Krlé, Sensibili alle Foglie, Rome: 1992, and many articles on Roma and minority issues in Italy.
  2. Piediripa di Macerata, June 2001.
  3. The full text of the ERRC report, as well as other information on the human rights situation of Roma in Italy, is available on the Internet at:



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