Italian minister's call for Roma 'register' sparks coalition rift
Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has ordered a new census of the country’s Roma community, as he continues his drive to root out and expel “foreigners” and provokes the first major rift with his Five Star Movement (M5S) coalition partners.
The call for a new “register” – and for all non-Italian Roma to be expelled – comes one week after Salvini violated humanitarian law to block a ship carrying more than 600 migrants from docking in Italy, forcing it to divert to Spain.
The policy has been met with resistance by the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, who was quoted in Italian press reports as saying that Salvini had gone “too far”.
Luigi Di Maio, the leader of the anti-establishment M5S, called Salvini’s order “unconstitutional”. A similar census pitched by the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was blocked by an Italian court.
The row is the first sign of a potentially serious split between Salvini and Di Maio, who has been overshadowed in the first weeks of government and appears eager to rein in the far-right leader. The two parties – Salvini’s League and Di Maio’s M5S – are both populist, but the League has tended to be much more outspoken about its xenophobic and racist attitudes towards migrants and non-Italians.
Salvini’s intense focus on immigration and “foreigners” has collided with M5S’s priorities of economic fairness and labour policy.
Even if M5S tries to wrestle the agenda from Salvini, polls show that Italians are backing the interior minister, who is now polling about equal to Di Maio, at 29%, in terms of popularity.
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.
On Monday he ordered the census and the removal of all non-Italian Roma – which he called an “answer to the Roma question” – and said he wanted to know “who, and how many” there were.
“Unfortunately we will have to keep the Italian Roma because we can’t expel them,” Salvini said on Telelombardia.
Salvini is on record as having praised Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist leader, and his new policy has sparked comparisons by the centre-left Democratic party to ethnic cleansing rules introduced in the 1930s that also targeted the Roma.
Salvini later added to his remarks, saying he did not want to create a separate list of the Roma, and that his intention was to protect Roma children and ensure they were going to school.
“The interior minister does not seem to know that a census on the basis of ethnicity is not permitted by the law,” Carlo Stasolla, president of the Associazione 21 Luglio, which supports Roma rights, told the Ansa news agency.
“We also recall that Italian Roma have been present in our country for at least half a century and sometimes they are ‘more Italian’ than many of our fellow citizens.
About 4,000 Roma live in state-sanctioned ghettos in Rome, according to a 2013 report by Amnesty International. These out-of-city ghettoes consist of pre-fabricated containers or mobile homes in fenced-off areas, often without adequate sanitationor clean drinking water. Inhabitants are excluded from other social housing despite many having lived in Italy for generations.
An Italian court in 2015 ordered the city of Rome to dismantle some of the state-sanctioned Roma facilities, after it said the capital was guilty of ethnic discrimination.