Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Berlusconi Targets Gypsies Amid Bias Against EU's Top Minority

By Steve Scherer

Aug. 5 (Bloomberg) -- Rebecca Covaciu, like most little girls, likes to draw pictures of the things she knows best: Her brother playing the accordion for spare change, a self-portrait as she begs for money to buy food, a shack under a bridge.

Rebecca is a Roma, or gypsy, as her ethnic group of Romany speakers is more widely known. She moved to Italy from Romania with her parents and two siblings two years ago. Since then, authorities have driven her family out of a half-dozen makeshift camps. In June, Italian men shouting racist taunts punched her and shoved her to the ground.

``I'm 12 years old and I already know what sadness is,'' she said in fluent Italian at the Tor di Quinto camp on the banks of the Tiber river in Rome. ``Why can't we live our lives, too?''

Her situation underscores the difficulties European Union leaders face in trying to balance the integration of their largest ethnic minority with the perceived threats of crime and illegal immigration. After coming to power in April, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi focused more attention on the issue with plans to conduct a census of Roma camps to ferret out illegal immigrants as part of a crackdown on crime.

There is evidence of intolerance toward the EU's estimated 10 million to 12 million Roma in all member nations, said Ivan Ivanov, a Bulgarian-born Roma who heads the Brussels-based European Roma Information Office.


Last year there were violent attacks against Roma communities in Bulgaria by backers of anti-immigration parties trying to drum up support before local elections, Ivanov said. Roma in Romania have long been segregated into settlements on the outskirts of towns, often without the same services available to ethnic Romanian and Hungarian residents, he said.

Italian newspapers on July 20 published a photograph showing the bodies of two Roma girls covered with towels after they drowned off the coast of Naples. In the background, beachgoers continued to sunbathe.

Romania, which entered the EU last year, has Europe's largest population of gypsies, a term rooted in the false notion that they originally hailed from Egypt. Anyone holding a Romanian passport is free to work without restriction in 11 EU member countries. The 15 other nations, including Italy, have imposed temporary limitations on the types of jobs Romanians may have as their country's economy integrates itself into Europe's.

`Cultural Integration'

``It pays politically to say, `Let's get rid of the Roma,' not only in Italy, but in Europe in general,'' said Nazzareno Guarnieri, who heads Rom Sinti Insieme, a federation of 22 Roma- rights groups. ``There need to be policies that promote cultural integration, that insert children into the educational system and put families in homes.''

The November rape and murder of Giovanna Reggiani, a 47- year-old Italian housewife, sparked new outrage after a Romanian- born man was accused of the crime. He was a gypsy and an undocumented immigrant who lived in an illegal Roma settlement.

After promising that his government would have ``zero tolerance'' of crime, Berlusconi signed ordinances May 30 requiring a census of 700 camps, saying they have become havens for criminals and illegal immigrants. After the census is finished in October, the government plans to dismantle all remaining unauthorized settlements.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni created an uproar in June when he said the census would include fingerprinting of all adults and children in the camps. Maroni backpedaled after Unicef, the Vatican, human-rights organizations, the European Parliament and the European Commission said the plan was discriminatory.

`The Worst'

``Criminality doesn't have any kind of connection to race and ethnicity,'' said Viktoria Mohacsi, a Roma member of the European Parliament from Hungary who has visited 25 of the EU's 27 countries to investigate the ethnic group's status. ``The most discriminated people living in Europe are Romany people, and the situation in Italy is the worst I've seen.''

According to Guarnieri, Roma have lived in Italy since the 14th century, and three-quarters of the country's estimated 160,000 gypsies are Italian citizens.

Many live in camps like Tor di Quinto, which has been occupied since 1991 and is considered an illegal settlement. Its ramshackle homes are built of plywood and have corrugated metal roofs. Some people have dug their own septic tanks because there is no sewage system. Residents use generators for electricity, and water has been illegally funneled away from city pipes.

Holocaust Survivor

Human-rights organizations, including EveryOne Group, have helped publicize the Roma's plight by bringing visitors to camps like Tor di Quinto. One of them, Piero Terracina, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, met Rebecca at the camp and discussed Italy's treatment of her people.

The Italian government's census plan ``scares me,'' Terracina said in an interview. Former Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini ``took a census of the Jews in 1938, and that was the beginning of a process that put me and my family in Auschwitz five years later.'' Maroni has repeatedly denied that the census constitutes ``ethnic screening.''

EveryOne Group helped move Rebecca's family out of the camp and into a home near the southern Italian city of Potenza. Her artwork, for which she won a prize from Unicef this year, now displays more positive themes, including a bucolic drawing of her family in front of the home they left behind in Romania.

``It's not better in Italy than in Romania,'' she said. ``There's no law and justice for Roma in Italy.''

To contact the reporter on this story: Steve Scherer in Rome at scherer@bloomberg.net

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