The Romanian authorities have called on Rome to protect the rights of thousands of honest Romanian immigrant workers, as Italy's government toughened penalties for sex offenders and permitted controversial "neighbourhood citizen patrols," after a spate of rapes blamed mostly on Romanian immigrants.
Resentment towards Roma in Italy has grown following the establishment of many illegal camps in recent years. Some camps outside Naples have even been torched by locals.
Some 160,000 Roma are estimated to live in Italy, 70,000 of whom are Italian nationals. The rest are immigrants from Eastern Europe, mainly from Romania (roughly 60,000), according to the NGO Opera Nomadi.
Silvio Berlusconi strongly built on resentment against Roma in his election campaign. Only 12 days after his government was formed, the European Commission warned the Italian government not to take "extreme measures" against Roma. The Romanian authorities also voiced concern that resentment against Roma will affect law-abiding Romanians living in Italy.
Berlusconi recently backtracked over a controversial bill that would have made illegal immigration a jailable offence following heavy criticism from the United Nations, the Vatican and within the European Parliament (EurActiv 04/06/08).
According to Italian government data, the number of sexual assaults actually fell last year, but three rapes some ten days ago in Rome, Milan and Bologna triggered a media frenzy that prompted calls for tougher measures.
The law approved by Italy's cabinet on Friday (20 February) sets a mandatory life sentence for deaths resulting from rape, fast-tracks trials for suspected sex offenders caught in the act, removes the option of house arrest and gives free legal assistance to victims.
It also introduces mandatory life sentences for rape of minors. It comes into effect immediately, but must be approved by both houses of parliament within 60 days.
One of the most controversial measures in the decree is to allow citizen street patrols by unarmed and unpaid volunteers.
"This is what was needed. I have to wake up at five in the morning to accompany my daughter to the train station because the streets are not safe," a resident of Guidonia, a town east of Rome with a large immigrant population, told Italian television.
Mayors will be able to approve citizen patrols, with priority given to membership or leadership roles by retired police and military on leave.
The move came after groups of self-styled and unregulated vigilantes began patrolling some towns, alarming law enforcement officials.
Berlusconi under fire by the Vatican
The centre-left opposition criticised the decree as propaganda, while the Vatican, whose views on moral issues carry significant weight in Italy, said the government was "abdicating the rule of law" by introducing the citizen patrols.
"This is not the path to follow," said Monsignor Agostino Marchetto, head of the Vatican department for immigration issues.
The decree also allows authorities to detain immigrants for six months - up from two months - while they work to identify them, process asylum requests and expel those who are not entitled to stay.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi earlier said the number of sexual assaults fell 10 percent last year compared to 2006 and 2007, which he said showed the government's efforts to improve security were working.
But many Italians are unconvinced, with recent rapes grabbing headlines in newspapers and television. The media often play up the role of foreigners as perpetrators.
Some lawmakers have also reopened the debate over whether sex offenders should be chemically castrated.
"There's a rape every 12 hours, every 24 hours, and it's time to end this," another resident of Guidonia - where a group of Romanians last month raped a woman and beat her boyfriend - told Italian television.
Romanian minister goes to Rome
Romanian Foreign Affairs Minister Cristian Diaconescu yesterday (23 February) visted Italy at the invitation of his Italian counterpart, Franco Frattini, the Romanian press reported. Diaconescu declared that he planned to support Italian authorities in countering felonies and in the same time to protect the rights and dignity of all Romanians living in Italy.
The Romanian minister stressed that the recent incidents involving Romanians in Italy were isolated events. He declared that they should be punished by the law, but that other Romanians in Italy should not be victimised.
(EurActiv with Reuters)
Romanian MEPs Daciana Sarbu and Corina Cretu (Social Democratic Party, or PSD; from the ruling coalition) protested in an open letter addressed to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni against the new wave of discriminatory accusations made by Italian politicians targeting Romanians living in Italy, the Romanian media reported.
In their letter, the MEPs stress that their nationals are once again the focus of attention in Italy, although the contribution of honest Romanians working in the Italian job market, who amount to "over 1% of Italy's gross domestic product," is not in the public eye.
"In turn, Romanian thieves and rapists have been in the focus of attention lately," MEPs further write, adding: "People talked so much about them that the remainder of Europe might think Romanian is a synonym for 'perpetrator'."
"What frightens us is the insistence with which voices of your political stage continue to present Romania as a source of perpetrations and Romania as a nation made up exclusively of offenders and perpetrators," the letter continues.
It concludes: "If we should punish something, let's punish crimes, not the nationality. The only weapon which we have to use against offences is the law. Thieves, rapists and perpetrators are not Romanians: they are malefactors and have to be punished for the evil they made. They alone should be punished, not an entire nation which consider you friends."
The Romanian Identity Party (PIR) registered in Italy on Saturday (22 February) organised a press event, calling on the Italian media to put an end to a campaign that exaggerates offences by Romanians.
"According to data supplied by the Rome police, the number of rapes in Rome has dropped by 10 percent in 2009, but, when reading the press in the past few days, you get the feeling that it actually went up 100 times," said the PIR's president, lawyer Giancarlo Germani, asking for the introduction of some sort of penalty for Italian journalists who present the issue in a xenophobic way.
PIR National Secretary Mihai Muntean said highlighting the Romanian nationality of offenders encourages a backlash among Italian extremist groups against innocent Romanians, referring to recent attacks on three Romanian stores.
- 1 March: The issue of resentment against Romanians in Italy is expected to be discussed bilaterally on the occasion of the next EU informal summit.
- HotNews Romania: Anti-Romanian protests in over 100 Italian cities
- HotNews Romania: Romania’s foreign minister visits Italy
- Financiarul, Romania: Romanian Identity Party calls on Italian media to put an end to campaign on Romanian offenders
- Roumanie.com: Quatre europarlementaires interpellent le CE sur la situation des Roumains en Italie
- Euronews: Extremist group calls for gypsy expulsions
- Corriere della sera: Omicidi, volenze, furti: il “caso romeno”
- Il Tempo: Stupratori e rapinatori niente sconti di pene
- RTBF, Belgique: Italie: nombreuses aggressions contre des Roumains
- Le Figaro: Des “rondes citoyennes” contre les violeurs en Italie
- EurActiv Romania: Frattini: Cine comite delicte va fi pedepsit, cine lucreaza cinstit va fi primit in Italia ca prieten
- EurActiv.sk: Kriminalita otrávila vzťahy Rím-Bukurešť
- EurActiv.com.tr: Göçmenlerin işledigi suçlar Italya ile Romanya’nin arasini açti