Campland: Racial Segregation of Roma in Italy

03 November 2000

The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), an international public interest law organisation which monitors the situation of Roma in Europe and provides legal defence in cases of human rights abuse, announces publication of the Country Report Campland: Racial Segregation of Roma in Italy. The report details ERRC concerns in Italy, including:

  • The segregation of Roma in so-called "camps for nomads"
  • Abuses of Roma by police and judicial authorities
  • Instances of violence against Roma by non-state actors
  • Discriminatory treatment of Roma in the provision of public services
  • The denial of the right to education to Romani children
  • A disturbing pattern of racist and anti-Romani speech by Italian public officials

On May 17, 2000, Mr Paolo Frigerio, mayor of the town of Cernusco sul Naviglio in the province of Milan, made a widely published statement in which he promised that he would pay five million Italian lire (approximately 2600 euros) of public local government money to any farmer willing to spray manure on an area where a group of Roma were temporarily residing in camper vans in the town. According to the mayor, "a bath of manure is the only way to even the score with the Gypsies, an act of justice equal to the manure they leave us when they move on." Mayor Frigerio has not been alone in his use of anti-Romani hate speech. The Lega Nord (Northern League), a prominent political party in Italy, frequently uses racist and anti-Romani language in public statements. Mr Umberto Bossi, leader of the Lega Nord, distributed fliers during the campaign for recent regional elections which stated, "If you don't want Gypsies, Moroccans and delinquents in your house, be the master of your own home in a livable city and vote Lega Nord." In regional elections on April 16, 2000, the centre-right and extreme right, including the Lega Nord, swept the country with a majority. Campaigning -- especially campaigning by right-wing parties -- featured explicitly anti-Romani messages. For example, in the town of Voghera, centre-right candidate Aurelio Torriani distributed fliers intended to discredit centre-left candidate Antonella Dagradi with the slogan: "The Gypsies will certainly vote for Antonella Dagradi. Do you want to do the same?"

Inflammatory statements by Italian politicians fall on fertile ground. Recent surveys indicate that Italians dislike and fear Roma, often on the basis of little or no experience with them. In the minds of many Italians, Roma are the archetype of unwanted "criminal" immigrants. This sentiment reached fever pitch when approximately ten thousand Romani refugees arrived in Italy during summer 1999, after being ethnically cleansed from Kosovo by ethnic Albanians following the end of the NATO bombing and the Yugoslav military action in the province.

Roma first arrived in Italy from the east having originally left India, probably around the 10th century AD. The first record of Roma on the territory of Italy dates back to the beginning of the 1400s. Found along with some of the first records of the arrival of Roma in Italy, however, are the first records of expulsion and persecution, for example, decrees stating that it was not a crime to "burn or kill Gypsies," such as the one issued by Maximilian I in 1500. Discrimination has burdened Roma throughout their history in Italy.

There are no accurate figures on the current number of Roma in Italy. One official count puts the number at 130,000, but the methodology used to determine this figure is not known to the ERRC. Local non-governmental organisations estimate that there are presently 60,000-90,000 Italian Romani citizens and 45,000-70,000 Roma born outside Italy or born in Italy to immigrant parents, mainly from Eastern Europe, especially the former Yugoslavia. Many of the latter group have no legal status in Italy. Roma who have managed to legalise their status often possess temporary residence permits valid for various -- but exclusively short -- periods of time. The overwhelming majority of residence permits issued to Roma are valid for between one month and six months.

Most Roma in Italy live in a state of separation from mainstream Italian society. For over half of Italy's Roma, this separation is physical: Roma live segregated from non-Romani Italians. In some areas, Roma are excluded and ignored, living in filthy and squalid conditions, without basic infrastructure. These Roma "squat" abandoned buildings or set up camps along the road or in open spaces. Their settlements are often called "illegal" or "unauthorised". They can be evicted at any moment, and frequently are. A racist society pushes these Roma to the margins and hinders their integration. Where Italian authorities have expended energy and resources on Roma, these efforts have in most cases not been aimed at integrating Roma into Italian society. Quite the opposite: as the third millennium dawns, Italy is the only country in Europe to boast a systematic, publicly organised and sponsored network of ghettos aimed at depriving Roma of full participation in, or even contact or interaction with, Italian life. These Roma, in Italian parlance, live in "camps" or ghettos that are "authorised". Underpinning the Italian government's approach to Roma is the conviction that Roma are "nomads". In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many regions in Italy adopted laws aimed at the "protection of nomadic cultures" through the construction of segregated camps. This project rendered official the perception that all Roma and Sinti are nomads and therefore should live in camps, isolated from Italian society. As a result, many Roma have effectively been forced to live out the romantic but repressive projections of Italians; Italian authorities assert that their desire to live in flats or houses is inauthentic and relegate them to "camps for nomads".

The description of Roma as "nomads" is not only used in the service of segregating Roma, but also in order to reinforce the popular idea that Roma are not Italians and do not belong in Italy. As such, government offices addressing issues related to Roma are called "Offices of Nomad Affairs" and fall under the competence of the Department of Immigration. Similarly, the existence of local administrative offices for "Nomads and Non-Europeans' indicates that Roma are commonly perceived as foreigners and vagrants in the eyes of Italian authorities. The message to Roma is that they should not consider themselves fully Italian.

Anti-foreigner sentiment and intense hostility towards Roma, accreting to the focal points of ghettoised Romani camps throughout Italy, has in recent years found expression in abusive raids conducted by police and other authorities. Police misconduct in Italy ranges from verbal abuse to serious ill treatment and shootings. During field missions in 1997 and 1999, and in the course of regular monitoring beginning in 1998 and continuing to the present, the ERRC has documented numerous cases of police abuse. Instances of abuse include:

  • Abusive raids, evictions and arbitrary destruction of property
  • Abusive use of firearms
  • Torture and physical abuse
  • Discriminatory targeting of Roma by police
  • Theft by authorities
  • Confiscation of identification papers
  • Sexually abusive searches of women
  • Failure to provide proper interpretation to immigrant Roma accused of criminal acts
  • Failure to provide information concerning detained Roma
  • Threats and violations of the right of assembly
  • Inadequate sanction for officers who abuse their authority

In addition, anti-Romani hostility in Italy finds expression in discriminatory treatment by judicial authorities; violence against Roma by non-state actors; discriminatory treatment of Roma in the provision of public services; the denial of the rights of Roma to education; and abuses of the right to employment. Finally, Italian authorities now appear intent on capitalising on anti-Romani sentiment in Italy by abusively expelling Roma from the country.

In its Concluding Observations concerning Italy of March 1999, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) condemned the treatment of Roma in Italy. In particular, the Committee expressed concern "at the situation of many Roma who, ineligible for public housing, live in camps outside major Italian cities," and stated that "in addition to a frequent lack of basic facilities, the housing of Roma in such camps leads not only to a physical segregation of the Roma community from Italian society, but a political, economic and cultural isolation as well." The CERD further lamented "the continuation of incidents of racial intolerance, including attacks against foreigners [...] and against Roma, [...] which are sometimes not recognised by the authorities as having a racial motivation or are not prosecuted;" and "reports of acts of violence and bad treatment by police and prison guards against foreigners and members of minorities in detention." In view of these serious deficiencies, the Committee recommended that the Italian government undertake a number of measures aimed at reducing racial intolerance and discrimination in general, and against Roma in particular.

Today, more than one year after the CERD's findings and elaborate list of recommendations, it is difficult to see any real effect of the CERD's criticism. The will to expel Roma from Italy has grown, and prominent politicians put forth real proposals that police should be allowed to shoot at boats carrying foreigners in the Adriatic. Aggressive and abusive raids by police and other authorities have continued apace. Italian politicians have publicly offered hate and been rewarded by popular support. The public has supported parties offering messages of hatred toward Roma and other groups. Those Italian politicians who have refrained from anti-Romani speech have remained silent, possibly in the keen awareness that the wind is blowing with those who hate or appeal to those who hate. Moreover, response by other European countries has been close to non-existent; there has been little or no reaction to the rise of radical hate in Italy.

The ERRC report Campland: Racial Segregation of Roma in Italy concludes with thirty-one recommendations to the Italian government, including:

  • Cease discriminatory expulsions of Roma and group expulsions targeting Roma;
  • Cease abusive police raids; bring collective police action into line with international law;
  • Thoroughly investigate all allegations of alleged police brutality, theft and other corrupt behaviour, as well as other forms of abuse, and bring errant police officers to justice;
  • Initiate measures to ensure that all Roma in Italy currently without residence permits are provided with assistance in acquiring one; facillitate access to Italian citizenship for Roma who have resided in Italy for five years or more;
  • Sanction inciteful hate speech against Roma to the fullest extent of the law, especially hate speech by public officials;
  • Thoroughly investigate all reported allegations of racially motivated crime against Roma and bring perpetrators to justice;
  • Implement measures to abolish segregation in the field of housing in Italy, including but not limited to abolition of the system of segregated dwelling areas known as "camps for nomads"; as swiftly as possible, implement measures aimed at integrating Roma fully into Italian society in the sphere of housing and ending both state-sponsored exclusionary policies as well as similar practices by private actors;
  • Investigate allegations of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system;
  • Address immediately all problems barring Romani children from integration into the mainstream of the Italian educational system; adopt an action plan for overcoming all barriers to the full integration of Roma in the Italian education system; design and implement programs for the Italian school system to heighten awareness of Romani history, culture and language among Roma and non-Roma; provide adequate transportation in each district for Romani children to be taken to school;
  • Make available to all Romani communities in Italy legal services to compensate for the relative exclusion of Roma from Italian society and the Italian legal system; guarantee immediate access to legal counsel from the moment of detention and throughout preliminary investigations for all those detained. For those who cannot afford legal counsel, provide such assistance free of charge, as required by Article 6(3) of the European Convention on Human Rights;
  • Design and implement public education programs aimed at reducing the current high levels of anti-Romani sentiment in Italian society.

The ERRC Country Report Campland: Racial Segregation of Roma in Italy appears simultaneously in an Italian translation distributed by the Italian monthly journal Carta.

Other reports by the European Roma Rights Center:

  • A Special Remedy: Roma and Schools for the Mentally Handicapped in the Czech Republic (June 1999)
  • A Pleasant Fiction: The Human Rights Situation of Roma in Macedonia (July 1998)
  • Profession: Prisoner: Roma in Detention in Bulgaria (December 1997)
  • No Record of the Case: Roma in Albania (June 1997)
  • The Misery of Law: The Rights of Roma in the Transcarpathian Region of Ukraine (April 1997)
  • Time of the Skinheads: Denial and Exclusion of Roma in Slovakia (January 1997)
  • Sudden Rage at Dawn: Violence Against Roma in Romania (September 1996)
  • Divide and Deport: Roma and Sinti in Austria (September 1996)


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