Kathryn D. Carlisle1 - Fortress Italy

10 July 2002

Nervous sweat appeared on his forehead as Mr F.V. awaited the hearing that would decide whether his two children, then held in state custody, would be returned. "I've learned to expect the unexpected," he said in reference to his year-long battle with the Italian legal system. His family's story is revealing of the confusion and pain that that system can create.

When his struggle to retain his children in his care began, Mr F.V. was living in a camper near the northern town of Brescia with his wife and their 3-year-old and 5-year-old children. Without documents, they begged to make ends meet when even poorly-paid day labor was scarce. Social services authorities placed their children in a temporary shelter, citing neglect and exploitation of minors. The judge at a pre-hearing meeting explained that for Mr F.V. to have a chance of getting his children back, he would need to move into an apartment, find full-time employment and acquire a permesso di soggiorno (the Italian temporary residence permit). In order to do this, Mr. F.V. was forced to allow his employer to dock his wages in return for providing official employment papers. After months of effort, he succeeded in acquiring a permesso and moved into an apartment, but that does not mean his troubles are over.

Italy is currently ruled by a coalition of center-right and far-right parties that includes several vocal anti-immigrant members. Since Silvio Berlusconi took office as prime minister in June 2001, the number of expulsions of foreign Roma and other non-citizens of Italy has increased dramatically. Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been publicly protesting new legislation such as the Bossi-Fini bill,2 but a sound opposition platform is yet to be built. The human rights movement is weak in Italy and many lawyers advise clients against public protest. This has meant scanty, mostly approving, press coverage of the situation.

The process of acquiring a permesso di soggiorno is becoming constantly more complicated for all foreigners, and the security it offers is still tenuous. What happens, then, when Romani immigrants and refugees tire of living precariously and try to legalize their situation? Families must either remain illegal or accept the risks involved in gaining a permesso. The danger surrounding the permit is that it requires families to be registered in the state bureaucracy – they become "known". Because of the temporary nature of the permit, this can lead directly to their deportation once the permit expires. Some NGO volunteers claim it is better for Roma simply to keep their involvement with the Italian legal system at a minimum.

Living outside the system means constant strain and uncertainty. It means living without access to public services or the possibility of acquiring basic documents such as a driver's license. Working under the table leaves one with no defense against abuse by employers. Not being registered, children born in Italy are ineligible for opportunities and services available even to resident foreigners. For these reasons, along with the threat of deportation to a country where one's safety may be at risk, many Roma go to great lengths to secure a permesso, even though the benefits of having one are far from unambiguous.

Back to Mr F.V.'s hearing. When the judge who had given advice at the pre-hearing meeting commented that "Roma breed quickly, so they won't miss two children out of the hundreds they'll surely have," Mr F.V.'s lawyer didn't bat an eye. I asked how she would respond to the racist comment, but she only hushed me. Her goal was to get her client's children back, she said, not to point out the judge's prejudices. After several more weeks of exhausting meetings, the children were finally returned, ending a 15-month emotional ordeal.

Mr F.V. was overjoyed to have his children back, but the problems facing Roma in Italy persist. It is difficult to encourage Roma to keep pushing for their rightswhen they may face deportation anyway. In a land where getting ahead frequently means getting around the system, fighting human rights cases can seem senseless. Temporary solutions are found but the flawed system remains in place. Unless fundamental changes are made, all activists can do is look for loopholes, challenge the system on its own terms, and hope for the best.


  1. Kathryn D. Carlisle has worked as a journalist and human rights activist in Guatemala, Hungary and Italy since the 1980s. She is currently a correspondent for Business Week as well as the ERRC's monitor for Italy.
  2. The Bossi-Fini bill would make illegal immigration a criminal offence carrying prison sentences of up to four years for repeat offenders. The law passed the government cabinet in October 2001 and at the time this issue of Roma Rights went to press was being debated in the upper house of the Italian parliament.


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