The Roma's Struggle to Find a Home

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Unwelcome and abandoned Italy has escaped serious criticism for its Roma-deportation campaign

Another day, and another ram-shackle encampment where Roma once lived is gone. The scrap-wood shelters have been pushed to the ground. The tents, collapsed. The inhabitants, scattered. In Rome, the eviction of the Roma — a European minority sometimes referred to as Gypsies — is taking place with the full force of the law: military police, bulldozers, German shepherds. But, in contrast to the international firestorm over such evictions in France, Italy's have attracted little attention.

Even as French President Nicolas Sarkozy tussled with the European Union over the repatriation of dozens of Roma to Romania (despite the name, Roma don't historically come from the country, although many live there), the mayor of Rome announced the demolition of his city's 200 illegal squatter camps, at a rate of three or four a week. This means another wave of expulsions for the Roma, who have faced similar efforts all over the country. Meanwhile, Italy's Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, took to the airwaves and declared the country's Roma problem — and many here see it as a problem — "practically resolved." He added, "The controversy around Sarkozy's decision made me smile a little. For us, it's a movie we've already seen."

The Roma and their camps have been present in Italy since the Middle Ages. But a steep rise in their numbers after Romania's entry into the E.U. raised tensions in a country where bigotry runs deep: in Italian, to call somebody a Gypsy is to call him a thief and a liar. At its height, Italy's Roma population more than doubled to somewhere around 160,000, many of them living in unregistered squats without running water, electricity or sanitation. And they are not welcome. In 2008, after a teenage Roma girl was caught in a Naples apartment allegedly trying to steal a baby, a mob burned down the nearest camp. The government declared a state of emergency and announced it would fingerprint the country's Roma and expel those who were there illegally. Objections from the E.U. halted the fingerprinting, but the censure stopped there.

If Italy managed to avoid the opprobrium being heaped on France, it's not because it treats its Roma any better. The criticism leveled at France accuses Sarkozy's government of singling out a specific ethnicity. Italy's campaign came in a context of broad xenophobia: discrimination against the Roma is not much stronger than that against, say, Romanians in general (indeed, many Italians don't make a distinction between the two).

Italy's politicians insist they aren't performing mass expulsions, but simply enforcing the law, closing camps and arresting criminals. But to many Roma, it all amounts to much the same thing. Frequent evictions, widespread discrimination and the risk of vigilante violence create constant pressure to go. Rebecca Covaciu, a 14-year-old immigrant from Romania, spent two years on the move, enduring police raids, beatings by thugs and a close brush with a mob in Naples before finally settling with her family in an apartment in Milan. "My family has had a terrible time finding work," she says. "When they see that we're Roma, they tell us, 'We don't need anyone.' And then you walk out, and there's 'Help Wanted' on the door."

In theory, evicted Roma are to be resettled, but so great is the mistrust that when Rome started destroying camps in September, the inhabitants — alerted by the arrival of journalists — dispersed before the police and social services could arrive. Evictions continue, even though a dozen new settlements the city has planned won't be completed for several months. Other municipalities are following suit. As a result, say activists, most of Italy's immigrant Roma have already left — to Spain, Switzerland, France and beyond.

Indeed, as more countries follow Italy's and France's leads, the pattern of rousting risks being replicated on a European scale. Italy's politicians have seized on the current uproar to up the ante, proposing laws that would allow the country to expel and bar entry to E.U. citizens who breach the conditions of their stay — just in case the Roma pushed out of France head their way.