Italian authorities have started fingerprinting tens of thousands of Gypsies living in nomad camps across the country — adults and children alike — brushing aside accusations of racism by human rights advocates and international organizations.
Interior Minister Roberto Maroni told parliament this week the move was needed to fight crime and identify illegal immigrants for expulsion, but also to improve the lives of those legally living in the makeshift, often unsanitary camps.
"We intend to make a census to see who lives in Gypsy camps, who has a right to stay and to live in humane conditions. Those who don't have a right to stay will be repatriated," he said.
More than 700 encampments have been built, mainly around Rome, Milan and Naples, populated almost entirely by Gypsies, also known as Roma.
The measure by Premier Silvio Berlusconi's conservative government, part of the government's crackdown on street crime, has provoked a storm of protests at home and abroad. Officials have spoken recently of a "Roma emergency" in Italy's big cities, blaming them for rising crime.
Maroni, a leading member of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, said the census will be completed in October. Critics, including the center-left opposition, claim the measure is not a census and is unfairly singling out a minority. Italy has an overall population census every 10 years that does not include fingerprinting.
The Interior Ministry said prints will only be taken from people who do not have a valid Italian or EU document, which would exempt Gypsies who come from EU member Romania. Maroni said Red Cross members would be present to ensure that the rights of the Roma are respected.
Maroni contended the fingerprinting would be especially beneficial to Roma children whose parents send them to beg or steal instead of going to school. He said those children will be removed from their parents' custody.
'Discriminatory ... and unjustified'
Charges of discrimination have rained in from international groups including the U.N.'s Children Fund and the Council of Europe. The Italian chapter of Amnesty International called the move "discriminatory, disproportionate and unjustified."
"Checks targeting a specific minority and affecting that minority, including its most vulnerable members, are discriminatory," organization said.
Italian newspapers published photos of gloved officials taking prints from the ink-stained hands of Gypsies living in Naples — and reported Thursday that fingerprinting would begin in Rome next week.
Some authorities were also identifying those fingerprinted by their religion and ethnicity. A Catholic lay organization, the Sant'Egidio Community, distributed what it said were census papers from Naples on Thursday, which included fields listing religion and ethnicity.
"I won't call it a racist measure, but the fact that a country that belongs to the G-8 and the European Union is discriminating against people on the basis of ethnicity is unacceptable," Marco Impagliazzo, Sant'Egidio's president, told a news conference.
The EU parliament will debate the issue next week, but EU officials have been cautious in their comments.
"I don't fully understand all aspects of the Italian proposals," EU Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimir Spidla said Wednesday. "However, it is clear that in Europe it would be impossible to grant rights to certain citizens and not grant them to others based on their ethnic origin."
History of distrust
Italians, and others in Europe, have a long history of distrust of Gypsies.
In Naples, camps had to be evacuated in May after attackers set huts on fire and angry residents in neighboring areas protested against the alleged attempt by a Gypsy woman to kidnap a baby.
Authorities in Rome have raided camps to check for proper papers and tear down illegal housing.
The head of UNICEF's Italy office, Vincenzo Spadafora, said in a statement that during a meeting with Maroni on Thursday the minister assured him that the census would be carried out "in respect for children's rights."
Spadafora added that the government's plan would include "integration and schooling" for Gypsy children. He said UNICEF invited Maroni to another meeting to discuss the crime crackdown plan.