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.
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.
Representatives from the EU and United Nations also criticized Maroni's proposal. Last week, he softened his position slightly, saying that the measure applies only to Roma living in the roughly 700 often squalid camps or shantytowns across Italy. Maroni also proposed taking fingerprints of all Italian citizens, beginning in 2011, so that the filing won't be discriminatory. He asked the Red Cross to conduct the survey, and said Monday that he plans to offer Italian citizenships in an humanitarian gesture to Roma children who are exploited by their parents.
Last week, the conservative Panorama, an investigative newsmagazine, featured a cover story on a young Roma girl forced to break into apartments under the threat of sexual abuse by her father.
Still, Maroni's gestures did little to mollify opponents.
"The way gypsies are treated nowadays reminds me of my childhood during the Fascist regime," said former president of the Unions of the Jewish Communities in Italy Amos Luzzatto, pointing out that a similar process of keeping files on the Jewish population was ordered by Benito Mussolini. Famiglia Cristiana, a weekly Catholic magazine, also compared the decree to the racial laws imposed by the Fascist regime in a June editorial.
Many, however, defended the census, including Bruno Vespa, host of the most widely watched TV talk show. According to a poll released Monday, about 67 percent of Italians support Maroni's plan.
Rich-poor divide on rights vs. security
Roma and recent immigrants often live in the outskirts of the major cities, building their camps and shantytowns close to neighborhoods populated by working-class Italians.
As residents of poor neighborhoods are getting exasperated with the lack of security, there is a growing sentiment that only the privileged can afford worrying about civil rights.
"Your tolerance toward gypsies is directly proportional to the distance between your house and the closest Roma camp," goes a saying that is becoming popular right now.
In April elections, Maroni's Northern League scored an unprecedented success among unionized blue-collar workers, previously considered the backbone of the post-communist Left.
"Why should I vote for the Lefties? They care only for gays and gypsies, not for poor hard working people like me," said a Fiat worker who gave only his first name, Luca, in an interview that was quoted in all the major papers just after the elections.
The Left indeed has already lost many supporters on security issues. The previous, Democrat-led government has been accused of making life easy for offenders. A 2006 law known as "indulto" severely reduces prison sentences. Last year, a man convicted of purposely killing his wife served only two days in prison. Many citizens feel betrayed, and want tougher measures – perhaps such as the new government is offering.