Down by law: police abuse of Roma in Italy

02 April 1998

Piero Colacicchi1

„I was begging on the sidewalk in Siena when a policeman came and started bullying me. People gathered around us. The policeman asked for my ID card, took a large black marker, wrote the word `thief’ on it, and showed the ID card around to the crowd. The people applauded.? Ms R.E., 17, born in Italy of Bosnian Roma parents, recounted this experience to me and the Criminal Court Police in Florence2 on January 7, 1998.

In Italy, there is an important legal distinction between Italian and immigrant Roma. The ramifications of this distinction began to be revealed in the late 1980s. Until then, the small and scattered number of immigrant Roma made the distinction less important than the elements of culture they shared with Roma and Sinti who had been in Italy for a longer period of time. There are presently 60,000-80,000 Italian Romani citizens - Roma in the South and Sinti in the North. Roma traditionally sedentary, have some chance of receiving equal treatment on the job and housing market. Sinti tend to live in camps in more precarious conditions and move around the country with fairs or with small travelling businesses.

Immigrant Roma (totalling 45,000-60,000) from former Yugoslavia and, in smaller numbers from other East European countries, have a much harder life3. These Roma are subjected to a legal regime that is rigid and difficult for a foreigner to navigate. Many of them are precluded out-of-hand from obtaining legal status in Italy by the fact that they do not possess valid documents from their country-of-origin. New documents are difficult to obtain and old ones difficult to renew due to the high fees charged by the embassies – Yugoslav passports can cost up to 1,2 million Italian Lira (approximately 1,425 German Marks) – or because men are considered military deserters by their country of origin. Without valid documents, it is impossible to obtain a residence permit from the police. These Roma are therefore permanently threatened with arrest and possible deportation.

Even where Roma do possess valid documents, the obstacles to legitimacy are numerous and, for many, insurmountable. Immigration law 416/89 (later 39/90) provides a legal regime in which a residence permit is necessary in order to obtain a work permit, but in order to obtain a residence permit, an individual must first prove that he or she has a job or an income equivalent to the minimum social security allowance. When it was first enacted, the law allowed foreigners without permits two years to find a job and thus become eligible for residence permits. Large numbers of Roma and non-Roma, illiterate or ignorant of Italian and unwelcome by Italians, did not obtain residence permits within the period stipulated. With no residence permit, foreigners cannot obtain work permits and thus have no possibility of earning a living legally. A high number of foreign Roma presently find themselves in this situation. They are then forced to become involved in misdemeanours or crimes or make a living by begging. The latter too was a crime until two years ago and it still is a serious one – the exploitation of minors – if undertaken by or with a child. Individuals without residence permits also have no state health insurance. Barring a radical change in the present legal regime, Roma who were unable to acquire Italian residence and work permits within the period of time stipulated by Immigration Law 416/89 run a high risk of remaining permanently excluded from Italian society. Women and children are especially affected, due to, among other things, the fact that traditional and common law marriages are often not recognised by the authorities, so many Romani families remain illegal even if a male head of the family obtains a residence permit. The hopelessness this state of affairs engenders throughout the immigrant Roma community is all-pervasive. The physical surroundings in which immigrant Roma live – one of two types of camp – exacerbates this hopelessness.

Camps are either self-organised or officially administered. Self-organised camps generally have poor sanitary and infrastructural facilities and, since they are illegal, are subject to police intrusion at any and all hours of the day. They are muddy in winter and dusty in summer, and are often located near city dumps.

The second type of camp is not characterised by such dire sanitary conditions, but often features guards at the entrance and many such camps are walled in. These camps came into being at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, when ten out of the twenty regions in Italy adopted laws aimed at the „protection of nomadic cultures" through the construction of such camps. This was an abstract and fundamentally negative project which rendered official the perception that all Roma and Sinti are nomads and can only survive in camps. Regional Law 299/89 of Lombardy, for instance, was entitled Regional Action for the Protection of Populations with Nomadic or Semi-Nomadic Traditions. A similar 1994 law in the Marche region has an even more interesting title: Interventions in Favour of Migrants, Immigrants, Refugees, Stateless Persons, Nomads and Their Families. Juridical and anthropological categories are thus blended arbitrarily.

There is only space here for a few of the absurdities born of the juridical enforcement of camps for nomads: many Roma arriving in Italy from Yugoslavia effectively became „Gypsies" when the Italian authorities asserted that their desire for flats was inauthentic and relegated them to camps; many „Gypsies" were thus also created out of non-Roma Yugoslavs and Albanians who, it was determined, were also „nomads"; due to the stigma of camp addresses and the fact that often persons living in camps are provided with documents stating „without address", „non-nomads" now effectively have more freedom of movement than „nomads"; since many of the (official) camps have one group address, police authorised to search for one individual may effectively enter any dwelling in the camp at will.

Indeed, almost daily police inspections, conducted with weapons at the ready and more often than not without proper warrants, have been a regular feature of all of the camps- especially of the self-organised ones- since they came into existence. Italian police regulations allow policemen, under Articles 144151 of the Sole Text of the Laws on Public Safety (Testo Unico delle Leggi di Pubblica Sicurezza - TULPS), to conduct intensive checks on foreigners. The penal code and TULPS provide laws requiring severe measures against vagrants. The synonyms Roma-Gypsy-nomad-vagrant-foreigner produce a state of continuous suspicion and the link between these is officially expressed by the existence of local administrative offices for „Nomads and Non-Europeans". Roma, whether or not legally Italian, are all perceived as foreigners and vagrants in the eyes of non-Roma, as the wording of the regional laws suggest: hence the ease with which the police abuse their fundamental rights.

One common type of abuse of Roma by the police are illegal confiscations: the large number of Roma with a record of administrative offences or petty crime make them easy targets for confiscations during raids. About eight years ago, one such confiscation was carried out at the Olmatello Roma camp in Florence, during which a lot of personal jewellery was taken from Roma without their being provided with receipts, as the law requires. This was witnessed by a non-Romani woman, Mrs Stella M., a full-time member of the Associazione per la difesa dei diritti delle minoranze (Association for the Protection of the Rights of Minorities – ADM). The police reaction to testimony and protest by the ADM was to deny everything. However, the police contingent responsible for the raid was identified by our volunteer and was never seen again in any Roma camp in Florence.

Another form of police abuse of Roma is physical abuse. One severe police beating of a Rom in Florence which had gone unwitnessed was reported by the victim to the police. On the night of June 8, 1994, Mr N.H. from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia presented himself to the police, accompanied by another Romani man, Mr Antonio B., and one of our volunteers. His long report, written down by the police, tells of how he was stopped in the centre of Florence while looking for a parking spot and ordered to get into a police car by three men (there then follows a very detailed description of faces and clothing) who told him they wanted to take him to the central police station. At one point during the ride, he reports that he told the policemen that they were driving in the wrong direction. He was told to shut up and pushed down onto the floor of the car. Upon arriving at a dark and lonely spot, „I said this was certainly not the police station." The report then goes on; „The policeman with short hair punched me [...]. The others pushed and punched me [...]. They kept beating me for a while. One of them asked me in a provocative way if I had a wife. I told them off and they forced me to the ground and kicked me hard. They never hit me in the face; only on my body, arms and legs. Then they left in their car, leaving me alone [...]. I walked home, where I found friends who immediately took me to the hospital." The report ends with a minute description of the police car and a further description of the men. After several days, however, the victim withdrew his complaint. The ADM reported the abuse of Mr. N.H. to Amnesty International, but to date the police officers who abused him have not been brought to justice. Roma report that most abuse of Roma by the police is never even reported because the police menace and harrass Roma who dare to report illegal activities conducted by authorities. Consequently, only the most extreme cases come to light.

When Roma or Sinti are the victims of police abuse, the criminal justice system is slow and ineffective to a degree unusual even by local standards. In one well-publicised case, Florentine police officer Riccardo Palagi was sentenced to one and a half years in prison in 1992 in a first instance procedure (Pretura Circondariale), after having been accused by many Roma of offending them, destroying documents, kicking them and generally threatening them in public. Two years later he was acquitted after appealing to the Supreme Court. During the trial, the Florence police – with the support of many civilians – went on strike to protest against his indictment.

Another example of inadequate response by authorities to police abuse is the so-called „White Fiat 1 case", which took place in Bologna. On the night of December 23, 1990, a car stopped near a Sinti and Roma camp, and individuals inside shot off some rounds into the camp, wounding several people and killing two Sinti, Mr A. della Santina and Mrs R. Pellinati. The car then sped off. For a long time the newspapers attributed this killing to rivalry between drugs or weapon dealers and to the spread of crime among Gypsies, even though no drugs or weapons had been found in the camp. Only after three policemen (Carabinieri) were also shot dead, with what proved to be the same weapons, did a real investigation begin. After some months, two Bologna policemen were arrested, tried and convicted for the spate of killings.

Another case occurred in Padua in September 1993, when an 11-year-old Yugoslav Romani boy named Tarzan Sulic was shot and killed and his 13-year-old cousin seriously wounded in police custody in very suspicious circumstances. After lengthy and complicated legal proceedings, the policeman (carabiniere) was only given a suspended sentence, despite protests and a petition signed by over 1000 people, including the mayor of Padua. He is reportedly still a member of the police force.

Popular prejudice, a superficial awareness of life in the camps, as well as the police attitude of perpetual suspicion and practice of continuous checks and raids, produce a deeply negative perception of Roma in Italian society. This negative attitude is strengthened by the visible conditions of indigence, frequent tack of documents, arrests in public, etc., which locate Roma firmly in the category of dangerous outcasts, people to be feared and despised. Most politicians, when asked to intervene in favour of Roma, especially of the non-voting immigrants, will refuse any official involvement for fear of losing support. Social workers and juvenile courts consider it their duty to take Romani children away from their parents and entrust them to Italian families - often as a prelude to adoption. They are assisted in this project by the Minor’s Adoption Law (184/1983), which considers children as abandoned when their parents cannot provide them with continuous moral and material support. The total number of Gypsy children given up for adoption to non-Romani families in Italy in the last few years is hard to estimate. To my knowledge and after interviewing many Romani women, the Florentine court must have decreed at least six adoptions in the last ten years. Since many other courts have acted similarly, the total number of adoptions must be over fifty for the whole of Italy.

Hostility towards Roma dates back centuries, but it became significantly more intense at the end of the last century as a result of several publications which were responsible for giving intellectual and even juridical shape to popular stereotypes and prejudices. Common suspicions and fears were turned into useful tools in the hands of politically-minded anthropologists who attempted to strengthen an otherwise weak national identity by articulating an image of the dangerous nomad, disrespectful of frontiers, lary and thieving, as opposed to a good Italian, who was home-loving, patriotic and hardworking4. Psychiatrists and jurists added their weight to this picture. Lombroso, a famous and widely-read criminologist, wrote, „Gypsies are a race of criminals, who easily murder for money5." Capobianco, an influential judge, wrote a book in 1914 in which he urged severe measures to control „the Gypsy", adding that, „he is more like an animal than a man, full of primitive and ferocious instincts6".

As late as 1991, a circular to local police head offices (Prefetture) on „Nomadic settlements, gypsies and non-European citizens", with the signature of Parisi, Head Prefect of the Ministry of the Interior, began by reminding the police of „the age-old problem of nomadic people" which has become in recent times particularly difficult because of popular hostility towards Roma. The circular went on to describe „the difficulties of a full integration" and then ordered „a deep and systematic survey of the major nomadic, Gypsy and non-European settlements". It ended by requesting that a full report on each province be sent to the anti-rime division of the Central Police Office7.

The contemporary Italian media strengthen the negative image of Roma. On December 14, 1997, for example, an article appeared in the national papers (the latest instalment of this mighty global myth) relating the attempted kidnapping of a non-Romani child by a Romani woman. The story depended entirely on the account told by the child’s mother, in which a single Romani woman attempted, in a large apartment house full of people, smack in the centre of town, to make off with her child. The journalists considered this a perfectly plausible story. The rare articles in favour of Roma talk about the ancient Gypsy culture and their Indian origins, or describe their mysterious customs and relate peculiar cooking habits or medical practices. Seldom, if ever, do they analyse the real legal, administrative or economic problems of Roma today, with a view to finding possible solutions. Roma misdemeanours or crimes are a daily feature of all local news: Roma are always described as nomads, whether Italian travelling fair-ground owners or Yugoslav immigrants from Skopje, Priština or Sarajevo.

Much of the responsibility for perpetuating the image of Roma as nomads lies with the strongly positivistic sociological and anthropological ideology of many activist organisations, be they religious or left-wing. Their main concern is to preserve „nomadic culture" and toward this end they organise well-financed assistance. These activities are, in turn, publicised in magazines and newspapers, and they convince many journalists, politicians and members of the public that there is an unbridgeable gap between Roma and non-Roma.

There are some unprejudiced public servants however. On April 23, 1995, the Mayor of Florence, Giorgio Morales, was indicted for ordering the destruction of Roma huts, caravans and personal belongings in the Roma camp of Olmatello in January 1992. Indictments for destruction of property were also brought against the mayor’s chief clerk, Mr Enio Tonveronachi and the chief of police, Mr Sauro Pieraccioni, who was allegedly responsible for carrying out the operations. In the indictment, Florence assistant public prosecutor Emma Cosentino stated, „The existing prejudices about... thieving, dirty, lying Roma who don’t want to work are alibis and excuses for many people: for the administrators who think it their right not to do anything to solve the problems of Roma and [in fact] do much to their detriment, and also for Roma who feel that institutions are distant, foreign and hostile, as indeed they are. [Roma] feel morally legitimised in taking justice into their own hands, recovering via crime the economic means to survival that have been denied them, thus excluding them from conditions of social equality with Italians. In Florence, the Roma live in conditions of complete indigence, in a state of degradation seen nowhere else, with the complete indifference [...] and neglect of the public administration. They come face to face with incredible, unjust and unjustifiable difficulties in all aspects of their daily lives, from birth (see the problems of giving birth in hospital) to later on (see the problems of attending school, finding work, conditions in jail, nutrition and all other physiological aspects) during their brief lives [...]8" 

On July 7, 1995, Mr Tonveronachi and Mr Pieraccioni, were ordered by the court to pay one million Lira (approximately 1,015 German Marks) in fines, plus damages to the Roma. The mayor was found not guilty, since it had been impossible to establish that he had ordered the operation be carried out with destruction of property. A year later, however, all parties were acquitted on appeal. In such an atmosphere of continuous and total disrespect for even the most elementary needs and rights, police abuse is the logical continuation of a generally abusive and violent situation.

Finally, the most common outcome of conflicts between Roma and the police is illustrated by the story of B.A., which is similar to so many others I have heard during the last four years as a volunteer at the Florence jail. B.A. is a sixty-three-year-old Bosnian Rom, a coppersmith who lived in the Olmatello Roma camp. In 1991, the mayor of Florence ordered the destruction of the camp. B.A. had some savings and, to pre-empt losing this during a raid, he went with his wife, his son and his pregnant daughter-in-law to deposit the money in a bank. „As soon as we entered the foyer, the policeman in charge went to the phone", his wife told me a few hours later, and she went on to explain that „Several minutes later, while we were queuing, a dozen policemen rushed in and ordered us out of the bank. B. protested, but they pushed him into the street. By then B. was very angry and started yelling and pushing. At this point all of the policemen started to beat him up. My son and his wife and I all tried to stop the fight. One of the policemen pushed my pregnant daughter-in-law away, screaming, ’Go away! or else there will be two less dirty Gypsies in the world!’ while pointing to her stomach. B. was handcuffed and taken away."

As soon as I heard about the incident, I called a member of parliament who is a friend of mine, and we both rushed to the police station. B.A. was there, covered in bruises. When the case came up for trial, the ADM asked one of its lawyers to defend him, but the lawyer said he had better plead guilty to resisting arrest and wounding a police officer and have one third of the time removed from his sentence, rather than go through the full trial with no witnesses on his side. Not one of the people at the bank would act as witness in his defence. He received a one year sentence. 


  1. Piero Colacicchi is vice-president of Associazione per la difesa dei diritti delle minoranze (Association for the Protection of the Rights of Minorities) a Florence-based non-governmental organisation. He has known and worked with Roma, especially immigrant Roma, for over ten years. He has written the introduction to a book on RomaYugoslav poetry: Romané Krlé, Sensibili alle Foglie, Rome: 1992, and many articles on Roma and minority issues in Italy.
  2. Although most of the evidence in this article is derived from Florence, this city is certainly not one of the worst in Italy for Roma.
  3. These are unofficial figures and estimates tend to be contested. Professor Piero Brunello, in his introduction to the book Town Planning Based on Contempt (P. Brunello, L'urbanistica del disprezzo, Rome: Manifestolibri, 1996), indicates the difficulty in estimating the relative number of Italian and immigrant Roma because of their irregular status, and because of the large number of children born in Italy to immigrant families in the last 15-20 years.
  4. A. Colocci, Gli zingari. Storia di un popolo errante, Torino, 1889.
  5. C. Lombroso, L'uomo delinquente, Pavia, 1876.
  6. A. Capobianco, II problema di una gente vagabonda in lotta con la legge, Napoli, 1914, quoted in L. Marciso La maschera e il pregiudizio, Roma: Melusina, 1990.
  7. Circolare No. 4/91 N. 559/443123/A-200420/1 6/2/1/1 dated 18 January 1991.
  8. E. Conentino, written memorial in support of her conclusions.


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