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Italy cracks down on its Roma (gypsies)

A census of those living in some 700 often-squalid camps across the country, often blamed for much of Italy's crime, has raised comparisons to Fascist times.

By Anna MomiglianoContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 26, 2008

Name, ethnicity, education, please: A Red Cross worker held interviews with Roma in a camp near the capital Monday.

Tiziana Fabi/AFP/NEWSCOM

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Milan, Italy

This week, Red Cross volunteers showed up in a gypsy camp in the outskirts of Rome, where about 20 families live in tents and shanties. The volunteers called every resident by name and recorded their personal data. In some cases, they took mug shots.

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It was the first step of a mandatory "gypsy census" in the capital, a controversial measure introduced by Interior Minister Roberto Maroni to fight crime and illegal immigration.

"What if we substitute the word 'gypsies' with the word 'Jews'?" asked senior opposition member Anna Finocchiaro provocatively, after Mr. Maroni vowed last month to open files on "the whole gypsy population," including fingerprints and mug shots.

The move comes as European leaders meet in Brussels Thursday and Friday to discuss a new European Union pact on immigration and asylum designed to harmonize and toughen EU policy toward the continent's estimated 8 million undocumented migrants. In Italy, which in the past few years has seen a huge influx of immigrants arriving by boat, the new conservative government came into power in May with promises of addressing the problem.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Sylvio Berlusconi – who says citizens "have a fundamental right not to be afraid" – won Parliament's approval for a law-and-order bill targeting illegal immigrants, which his government blames for much of Italy's crime.

"Foreigners committed 60 percent of the attempted homicides, 60 percent of the robberies, 82 percent of the muggings," Sandro Mazzatorta of the anti-immigrant Northern League party told the Senate, referring to 2007 data for the city of Brescia, reported Reuters.

Anti-immigrant political climate

In that context, Maroni's call for a census of all Roma (gypsies), was seen as discriminatory – especially since some of them are native to Italy and hold Italian citizenship. The interior minister also belongs to the Northern League party, which won 8 percent of the vote this spring.

"Everybody here holds a regular Italian ID. There was no need to make a file of anyone, were it not for our ethnicity" says Giorgio Bezzecchi, a community leader in a gypsy camp in Milan, where the census was conducted last month.

Nedo Fiano, a prominent Jewish intellectual and a Holocaust survivor, was also upset by the news of the Milan census. "When I hear a story like that, I see myself once again wearing that Auschwitz uniform," he says.