Despite living on the Italian peninsula since the 14th century, Romani people have historically been seen as outsiders in Italian society. That is why they, alongside Jews, were targeted by the fascist state from the 1920s to the 1940s. In 1926, just four years after coming to power, Benito Mussolini’s fascist government issued an order to expel all “foreign Gypsies” and “cleanse the country of all Gypsy caravans”. Those who remained were regularly harassed and arrested. In 1940, the internment of Roma and Sinti in Italian concentration camps began where many were either murdered, deported to Nazi death camps, or died of hunger or poor conditions.
Romani people continue to be viewed with suspicion and hatred. When Roma from the Balkans began arriving in Italy in the 1960s, the local authorities started putting them in so-called “nomad camps” based on the racist assumption that Romani people were vagrants. But the Yugoslav Roma were coming from a sedentary lifestyle, never having been nomadic in their lives. These policies persisted. Negative perceptions that Roma are criminals and illegal immigrants grew.
In the 2000s, this allowed populist politicians like Berlusconi to politicise the issue and use it for electoral gain. Berlusconi subjected the Roma to police intimidation, illegal detentions and deportations. He justified the fingerprinting of Romani children, ethnic censuses of Romani people, and deployment of troops to crack down on so-called “Gypsy criminality”. Segregated “nomad camps” became the de facto policy of choice for provincial authorities to accommodate Roma who could not be deported under a 2007 law, allowing expulsions of people deemed to “threaten” public safety. In later years, after the camps were neglected and left without access to basic services, the authorities started forcefully evicting Romani families from them. The Italian government started demolishing homes and turning families out onto the street without providing them with alternative accommodation. Berlusconi’s policies became a template for state violence against the Roma. Police raids and intimidation, the systematic use of punitive forced evictions and surveillance tactics against the Roma have continued under successive governments. Berlusconi’s anti-Roma campaign also paved the way for the far-right in mainstream Italian politics.
Salvini became deputy prime minister and interior minister and within a month of taking office, he called for a census of the Roma to facilitate their deportation, noting that “unfortunately” those holding Italian citizenship could not be deported. He also threatened to remove Romani children from their families if they were not sent to school. Salvini incited anti-Roma actions throughout Italy. Far-right groups such as Forza Nuova and Casa Pound organised anti-Roma marches and engaged in violent hate crimes against Romani communities.
Italy’s Roma fear what comes next with the election of Meloni who has a history of racist anti-Roma rhetoric.