Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-ROMA: The Finger Now Points to Italy

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Sep 19 2008 (IPS) - White T-shirts with a designer smudge of a dark fingerprint were the most popular item of fashion among the 500 people attending the European Union’s first-ever ‘Roma summit’ in Brussels this week. Carrying the slogan ‘No Ethnic Profiling’, the garments drew attention to highly controversial moves by the Italian authorities to carry out a census of the dilapidated camps in which members of Europe’s largest minority are frequently condemned to live.

Italy’s decision to introduce mandatory fingerprinting for Roma, often called ‘gypsies’, who are believed to have migrated to Europe from India since the 14th century, followed a spate of crimes that were blamed on this community. In one incident a 16-year-old Roma girl was accused in May of trying to kidnap a baby in Ponticelli, a suburb of Naples. This led to an outbreak of anti-Roma violence; shacks were set ablaze, while crowds of locals cheered.

Visiting Brussels Sep. 16, Eugenia Maria Roccella, an Italian junior minister for employment, claimed that fingerprinting is necessary if there are to be “effective integration measures” for Roma. Her address to the summit prompted a walkout of human rights activists, who maintain that the move amounts to unfair discrimination.

Although the European Parliament, the EU’s only directly elected institution, has officially declared that the move is incompatible with human rights legislation applying throughout the continent, mixed messages have emerged from the European Commission, the EU executive, which hosted this week’s summit. Earlier in September, the Commission indicated it was satisfied that the fingerprinting was only directed towards those who could not be identified by any other means and that the collection of data relating to religion or ethnic origin had been excluded.

But Jacques Barrot, the European commissioner for justice, promised to be vigilant towards Italy during this week’s summit, which brought together politicians, civil servants and activists. “We have let the Italian government know that the census cannot be carried out on an ethnic basis,” he said. “It has undertaken to follow our recommendations. There are proposals and there is reality. We have seen the proposals; they are acceptable. And I will not tolerate any practice that is incompatible with European rights. I will make this my personal business.”

Ivan Ivanov from the European Roma Information Office in Brussels believes that Italy is setting a dangerous precedent. “If the situation in Italy is tolerated, it could be adopted as the approach for other countries also,” he said.

Ivanov expressed particular concern about how the Italian measures pander to prejudice and how the opinion poll ratings of Silvio Berlusconi, the country’s prime minister, improved after the measures were announced.

Surveys by Eurobarometer, the EU’s in-house pollster, indicate that up to half of the Union’s citizens do not want to live beside Roma or have their children educated in the same classroom as Roma children.

According to Ivanov, hostility towards Roma, who are estimated to number between seven and nine million in the EU, is fuelled by ignorance. “Non-Roma who live together with Roma don’t know much about Roma culture,” he said. “If you want to fight extremist violence against minorities, you have to raise awareness about ethnic minorities.”

A recent study by the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) found that Roma encounter bias in all areas of life. In the Czech Republic, some 70 percent of Roma are unemployed, even though the national joblessness rate stands at 6 percent. In Hungary, notices on apartments available for rent can stipulate that “blacks, Arabs and gypsies should not call for information.” And Roma children are segregated from their peers in the general population in many schools in Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia.

George Soros, the philanthropist and financier, argued that racial profiling of Roma should be struck down by the EU’s top court in Luxembourg.

“Fingerprinting, racial profiling and so on is unacceptable and, I believe, illegal and I hope that the European Court of Justice will take up the case and declare it illegal,” he said at the Roma meet.

The EU Roma Policy Coalition, which includes Amnesty International and the Soros-founded Open Society Institute, has urged that a new European strategy for Roma inclusion be developed.

The strategy, which would involve extensive consultation with Roma about issues affecting them and the setting of benchmarks for assessing discrimination against them, is being recommended amid frustration at previous efforts, ostensibly aimed at giving Roma a better life.

The right of Roma not to be discriminated against is upheld in an EU law introduced in 2000. Central and Eastern European countries, where a significant proportion of Roma live, have been required to put this law on their statute books in order to join the Union.

Yet human rights activists have complained that implementation of the law has been patchy and that there has been a lack of willingness to address the plight of Roma at a high level in the EU’s Brussels headquarters or in the capitals of its member states.

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