Italy's interior minister Matteo Salvini vowed to turn “words into action” in his drive to root out and expel thousands of nomadic Roma from Italy. The Roma community has long been a target of Salvini, whose rise to prominence often involved press appearances at Roma camps, which he has frequently threatened to raze. Few minorities are treated with as much contempt in Italy as the Roma, who face prejudice and stereotypes that are deeply ingrained in the social consciousness.
Roma have Indian roots, and migrated slowly westwards over hundreds of years, appearing in historical records from Europe by the 14th century. Originally nomadic, though now settled in many areas, they were first targeted by European officials over 500 years ago.
“Roma were banned from the Holy Roman Empire in 1501 and, as of this date, could be caught and killed by any citizen,” the Council of Europe explains. In France less than two centuries later, Louis XIV ordered that all Gypsy men be condemned to forced labour for life without trial, women be sterilised and children be sent to poorhouses.
As the Enlightenment spread across Europe in the 18th century, Roma were among the many excluded.
Spain in 1749 launched an operation known as the “great Gypsy round-up”; Roma were enslaved in parts of what is now Romania until 1856. The Austro-Hungarian empire ran a fierce “assimilation” policy that involved separating children and parents, the Council of Europe explains.
Roma were among the targets of Nazi laws introduced in the 1930s, and Italy’s own fascist ethnic cleansing rules of the 1920s, and during the second world war hundreds of thousands were killed in massacres and at concentration camps. Although the exact death toll is not known, in some countries the killing wiped out up to 90% of the Roma population. In the immediate aftermath of the war, many Roma concentration camp survivors were refused help and compensation. In the decades that followed, stigmatisation and discrimination has continued across much of Europe.
As late as the 1970s, Switzerland was taking children from their parents, arguing that they couldn’t educate them to be good citizens. A recent study in Britain found a huge rise in Romany and Traveller families having their children taken away, a trend blamed on institutional prejudice. This decade alone they have been segregated in schools in Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Last year a Swedish appeals court ruled that police should pay compensation after setting up an illegal database of Roma family trees that included several thousand people, many of them children, or individuals without any criminal record.