Image: Gypsy census
Pier Paolo  /  AP
A member of the Italian Red Cross talks to a woman as she collects medical data from Roma people living in the outskirts of Rome on Thursday. The national government says fingerprinting, part of a wider crackdown on street crime and illegal immigration, is needed to establish who is living in the country illegally, and to spur efforts to get Gypsy children to attend school.
updated 7/18/2008 7:54:16 PM ET 2008-07-18T23:54:16

City officials and Italian Red Cross workers began a census of Rome's Gypsy population but said Friday that they will not participate in a national push to fingerprint all Gypsies unless they encounter someone suspected of a crime.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government has drawn a stream of criticism from the European Union and human rights groups since announcing last month it wanted to fingerprint the tens of thousands of Gypsies, children and adults alike, who live in hundreds of encampments built mainly around Rome, Naples and Milan.

A government ordinance required a census of the camps but left authorities in each city leeway on how to identify the inhabitants. Rome Prefect Carlo Mosca, the government's top security official for the city, has been skeptical of mass fingerprinting.

Officials with the Italian Red Cross began the census at a camp on the outskirts of the city Thursday, taking down details on the health, education and family status of a few dozen inhabitants. Police didn't take part in the process, but stood by to provide security.

Mosca said at a news conference Friday said that Gypsies will not be fingerprinted unless there is suspicion they may have committed a crime, in which case police will carry out the process after approval by a magistrate.

"When there is suspicion of a crime ... fingerprints can be taken as for any Italian," he said on Friday.

The national government maintains that fingerprinting, part of a wider crackdown on street crime and illegal immigration, is needed to establish who is living in the country illegally, and to spur efforts to get Gypsy children to attend school.

Critics say the campaign is a discriminatory measure that singles out the Gypsy, or Roma, minority.

'A step in the right direction'
The camp in the Corviale neighborhood was half-empty and those residents who stepped up to fill the forms said some of the inhabitants had fled in fear of the approaching throng of media and officials.

"We are here only for humanitarian purposes, to get in touch with these people who have been always marginalized," Massimo Barra, President of the Italian Red Cross, told reporters at the camp in Rome. "(We) have nothing to do with fingerprints."

Barra said the inhabitants of the camps would not be forced to take part in the census, which is expected to wrap up by mid-October.

At Friday's news conference, Barra said the way the census had started in Rome was "a step in the right direction."

Asked if he felt the Red Cross was being used by the state to carry out the controversial program, he said that "theoretically, such a risk exists, but the government has an obligation to respect human rights ... if there will be attempts to take advantage of us we will know what to do."

Other cities have been more aggressive in using fingerprinting. In Naples, where the census began weeks ago, authorities have been taking fingerprints and also filling out forms including information on ethnicity and religion.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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