You may have read my previous post about the Italian government’s decision and now action to fingerprint and register all the approximately 150,000 ethnic Roma in Italy – nearly half of them children, a state-sponsored act of appalling racism, the likes of which haven’t been seen in Western Europe since the Second World War. What’s struck me ever since this story broke, was the incredible silence resonating from European capitals. Where is Gordon Brown to stick up for human rights in the EU? Oh he’s too busy using his lackey Jacqui Smith to send gay Iranian, Ugandan and Syrian asylum seekers back to a certain death. Angela Merkel? José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero? Nothing. The EU capitals have been silent. In Brown’s case the situation in Zimbabwe was of paramount importance (and I’m not saying it’s not, because it is), except it seems at least as important to stamp out hatred based on difference at home too. That it’s occurring under the watch of Silvio Berlusconi (not to mention Italy’s highest appeal court) should make it all the more chilling.
But in the absence of anti-racist condemnation by European leaders it has been down to religious, community and civil society leaders to attack the scapegoating of the Roma:
Catholic human rights organisations have damned the fingerprinting of Gypsies as “evoking painful memories”. The chief rabbi of Rome insisted it “must be stopped now”. Roma groups have demonstrated, wearing the black triangles Gypsies were forced to wear in the Nazi concentration camps, and anti-racist campaigners in Rome this week began to bombard the interior ministry with their own fingerprints in protest against the treatment of the Gypsies.
Vincenzo Spadafora, the head of UNICEF in Italy said:
he was “seriously concerned”, adding that the government would be acting in a discriminatory fashion “unless it fingerprinted every child in Italy”.
And it took the Secretary General of the Council of Europe to start condemnation at a supra-national level:
“While I believe that Italian democracy and its institutions are mature enough to prevent any such ideas becoming laws, I am nevertheless concerned that a senior member of the government of one of Council of Europe member states is reported to have made such a proposal,” (Terry) Davis states.
It should be remembered that the Council of Europe was set up in 1949 to guarantee human rights, pluralist democracy and the rule of law in Europe. Maroni’s plan is a slap in the face to the Council’s remit of developing democratic principles based on the European Convention on Human Rights (which the UK enshrined into national law through the Human Rights Act). But this is hardly be the first time a Council of Europe member or indeed EU member has ignored its own fidelity to the ECHR – take Blair’s and now Brown’s asylum policy. ‘Failed’ asylum seekers are criminalised, their persecution is explained away as imaginary, and some face violence even from the UK Border Agency’s enforcers:
(Stephanie Toumi) alleges: “The escorts threw themselves on me. One scraped me and I fell on my stomach, the other trapped my arms, twisting them behind and the other two put on handcuffs. I felt a very severe pain in my body and I wanted to twist my right foot to get up, but one of them totally paralysed this foot by giving me a sharp blow with his knee.
“When they finished handcuffing me one of them caught hold of my hair to lift me up. I felt ill as I have never felt ill all my life.” She alleges that when she started crying, the guards said: “Shut up, stupid whore.”
At Brussels airport, where the escort and the asylum-seeker were due to catch a flight to Cameroon, Belgian immigration officers noticed Ms Toumi was now unable to walk unaided and informed the escorts they would have to take her back to the UK.
An independent doctor’s report found her injuries were due to the alleged assault.
In Italy the castigation of the Roma is all the more appalling, given that many of them are Italian by nationality. Yet Thomas Hammerberg, European Commissioner for Human Rights points out:
“I visited Casalino 900 camp, where 650 or so Roma live,” he said. “There was no electricity, no water. It was a very bad slum.”
And the fear of the “ethnic register” was already rampant, he said, “due to what happened to them in the past in Germany and elsewhere. They also raised the question, why us? Why not others? Many of those in the camp I visited had been in Italy for 40 years; they came over from Yugoslavia, some of them still have problems with identity papers, squeezed between the old and the new country. If you’ve been in a country for 40 years, are you still a foreigner? This talk about fingerprints was another reminder that their status has never been settled.
“The basic problem of Roma is widespread in Europe: housing, health, education, employment, political representation… But for a long time in Italy the Roma have been a symbol of something that is unwanted.
And there you have it. The real problem is poverty and entrenched racism, yet it remains politically convenient and expedient to castigate an ethnic group for their own circumstances, in the case of the former Mayor of Rome Walter Veltoni, conflating their ethnicity with their nationality.
The European Parliament though has now intervened:
Italy’s fingerprinting of members of the country’s Roma community is a direct act of racial discrimination, the European Parliament has said.
In a resolution adopted by 336 votes to 220, MEPs called on Italy to bring the practice to an immediate halt
The resolution called on Italy “to refrain from collecting the fingerprints from Roma, including minors, as this would clearly constitute an act of discrimination based on race and ethnic origin”.
It also “condemned utterly and without equivocation all forms of racism and discrimination faced by the Roma and those seen as ‘gypsies'”.
Of course this isn’t binding, but it should be remembered that the UK government’s reversal of gay Iranian asylum seeker Mehdi Kazemi’s deportation followed intense international pressure which came in part from an EU Parliament resolution on the issue. But:
Italian newspapers have published pictures of officials taking fingerprints from gypsies living in and around the southern city of Naples and filing the prints according to religion, ethnicity and level of education.
We live in dangerous times. If the leaders of the G8 wonder why they’re held in such low regard it should have something to do with eating fine food whilst great swathes of the world starves. It should have something to do with patting Silvio Berlusconi on the back whilst at home a single ethnic group is surveyed, catalogued and generalised against for a problem which isn’t even there. Seumas Milne reminds us of a nominally left-of-centre party which operated on blind obedience to neoliberal economic policy, and whilst experiencing large scale immigration, fell after ignoring growing needs for jobs, housing and to combat exploitation. Britain would do well to learn urgent lessons from Italy’s current crisis.