Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees

ROMANIA: Looking to Rome to Escape the Roma

Claudia Ciobanu

BUCHAREST, Jul 22 2008 (IPS) - A decision by Italian authorities to fingerprint nomads – mostly Roma – is supported by many Romanians, in spite of statements from Romanian officials condemning the measure as discriminatory.

According to Italian human rights organisation Opera Nomadi, approximately 160,000 Roma currently live in Italy. Most of them inhabit improvised camps on the outskirts of towns. Roughly 60,000 come from Romania, which has Europe's largest Roma community, numbering close to 2.5 million in a population of 22 million.

The Roma are believed to have migrated to Europe from India since the 14th century.

Following several highly publicised reports of Roma, often from Romania, committing crimes in Italy, the Italian centre-right government declared a one-year state of emergency May 21 in relation to the settlements of nomad communities in the regions of Campania (capital Naples), Lombardia (Milan) and Lazio (Rome).

Ordinances accompanying the state of emergency allow the prefects of these regions to conduct identity screenings, involving fingerprinting, of all persons, even those not considered dangerous or suspected of crimes. Authorities in Naples and Milan have since declared their intention to fingerprint nomads, including minors, living in camps around the cities.

Italian authorities have further announced that all Italian citizens are to be fingerprinted for their national identification cards before 2010. But this has not convinced human rights groups that the fingerprinting of nomads now is not discriminatory. The Council of Europe, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and Amnesty International, among others, have condemned the decision of Italian prefects.

Similarly, the European Parliament (EP) adopted last week a resolution "urging the Italian authorities to refrain from proceeding to the collection of fingerprints of Roma, including minors, as this would clearly constitute an act of discrimination based on race and ethnic origin, forbidden by the Art. 14th of the European convention on human rights, and furthermore an act of discrimination between EU citizens of Roma origin or nomads and those who are not and are not required to undergo such procedures."

"In the case of Italy, it is not so much the fingerprinting itself which is worrisome, but the fact that fingerprinting is being done on an ethnic basis," says Magor Csibi (Member of the European Parliament from the ALDE-Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) from Romania, one of the authors of the EP resolution text. "If we talk so much about social inclusion in all European policies, we cannot accept a campaign which stigmatises a whole segment of population. We cannot make generalisations on the basis of race or ethnicity. Additionally, fingerprinting children is even more worrisome and breaks all norms in European legislation.

"If Roma in Italy do not have identification documents, this is a proof of the inefficiency of Italian authorities," Csibi told IPS. "Nomads and nomad camps have existed in Italy for years, they did not just appear over the last couple of months. Those people must be documented, but they cannot be treated as a group of criminals."

Many Roma in Romania lack documentation and live in dire conditions, making Romanian authorities too responsible for the current situation. But the developments in Italy brought little discussion in Romania over the responsibility of this country for the discrimination of Roma.

Romanian authorities were quick to distance themselves from the Italian government, by condemning the fingerprinting. "For the Romanian government, observing human rights is a priority," said Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu. "We cannot accept that Romanian citizens are subject to discriminatory practices that do not respect human dignity."

Echoing the statements of Romanian politicians, several Romanian NGOs – the Agency for Press Monitoring, Roma rights group Romani Criss and the Agency for Community Development – together with private all news TV channel Realitatea TV, initiated a campaign expressing solidarity with the Roma in Italy by asking people to voluntarily submit their fingerprints on lists to be presented to the Italian authorities in protest.

Thousands of fingerprints were collected around the country. Public figures from the media and cultural scenes have expressed their support for the cause, and politicians such as Interior Minister Cristian David have submitted their fingerprints.

But the campaign sparked much controversy. Thousands of messages of protest against the campaign were sent to Realitatea TV, the main promoter of the initiative. Polls conducted by rival news channel Antena 3 and a couple of national dailies, each on samples of 500-1,000 interviewees, suggested that around 90 percent of respondents agreed with the fingerprinting and considered the campaign of the NGOs "hypocritical".

IPS reviewed close to 1,000 forum comments sent to Realitatea TV in response to the campaign. Just over 100 can be considered sympathetic to the campaign or neutral, while the majority denounced the initiative and the statements of Romanian leaders criticising the fingerprinting.

The majority wrote comments saying the Roma must be monitored through fingerprinting because they are "inclined to commit more crimes" and because "they damage Romania's reputation in Europe." Many others said they cannot understand why the fingerprinting causes so much outrage, since it is common to be fingerprinted in such situations as entering the United States or renewing one's residence permit in Italy.

"As honest Romanians working in Italy, we are tired of being mistaken for the gypsies, who are known for their crimes," read one comment, expressing the gist of similar entries. Over a million Romanians are currently living and working in Italy.

An online petition, signed so far by over 1,200 people, asks Romanian authorities to outlaw use of the name 'Roma', and replace it with 'tigan' (gypsy) or an older name used for the Roma, 'Dom', in order to avoid confusion between Roma and Romanians.

Reactions to the developments in Italy fall in line with sociological studies on the attitude of non-Roma Romanians towards the Roma. A study conducted at the end of 2006 by the Max Weber Foundation for Social Research and financed by the Romanian government shows that, when asked to choose among over 20 characteristics the ones which best match the Roma, 53.2 percent of the non-Roma (96 percent of a total of 1,170 interviewees) said Roma are "thieves", 47.3 percent called them "dirty" and 37.1 percent "lazy". Characteristics with positive connotations, such as "civilised" or "intelligent", were attributed to Roma by less than 5 percent of those interviewed.

Having lived for centuries in the territory of Romania and elsewhere in Europe, the Roma seem to be far from being considered European citizens.

In spite of rhetoric, "Europe lacks a coherent strategy on Roma," says MEP Magor Csibi. "After pressures from the European Parliament, the European Commission is expected to present this fall the concrete elements of such a strategy. I cannot agree that Roma in Europe – about 10 million people – have to pay the price for our centuries-old incapacity to integrate them."

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