Treatment of the Roma, said the Czech playwright and former president Vaclav Havel in the early 1990s, is the moral litmus test of European democracy. He should be worried. The recent wave of camp demolitions, expulsions and deportations in France and Italy, aimed at removing Europe’s largest ethnic minority and appeasing rising anti-immigrant sentiment, is remarkable both for the nakedness of its racism and the ugly shadows from history it has let loose.
Some 1,800 Roma were expelled from France over the summer. At the beginning of October, the country’s Immigration Ministry introduced a fingerprinting system to prevent the deportees from returning. When the European Parliament strongly criticized the Italian prime minister for doing the same in 2008, Berlusconi backed down—but without rescinding the emergency laws behind the measures. A number of European Union member states have signed readmission agreements with eastern European nations allowing them to expel thousands of Roma, together with their children born in western Europe. The measures are part of wide-ranging, border-tightening policies across Europe, including caps and quotas, fines, biometric identification cards and, in Italy, a freeze on work permits. “Short of building walls,” says Oliviero Forti, immigration director for Caritas Internationalis in Rome, “immigration policy in Italy could hardly be more restrictive.”
But it is the actions against the Roma that suggest the return of old European ghosts. Among the most enthusiastic initiatives are those in Milan, where the city’s largest Roma camp, Troboniano, is being bulldozed, along with dozens of small, impromptu settlements. The sgomberi, or demolitions, are proving popular. Many Milanese are convinced that the 1,300 Roma (in a city of four million) are the source of the city’s problems. “Our final goal is to have zero gypsy camps in Milan,” enthuses Riccardo Di Corato, the city’s vice mayor.
The Roma, or Gypsies, are Europe’s largest and oldest minority, numbering perhaps 10 million, many of them migrants from the Balkans. Although famously mobile, moving around the edges of European towns in ramshackle caravans, most are in reality sedentary but kept separate by proud adherence to their language and culture. In the past 20 years, their numbers have swollen by the arrival of a stream of refugees from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. The stream became a river after January 2007, when Romania became part of the European Union, and Roma joined hundreds of thousands of migrants moving from eastern to western Europe.
Italy was unprepared for the influx. In Rome the newcomers were segregated in informal camps and began to appear on the streets, begging or selling. The mood against them turned ugly. When a Roma was accused of murdering a naval captain in November 2007, Walter Veltroni, the mayor of Rome and a former Communist, ordered the demolition of the city’s camps, pushing through emergency laws that justified expulsion of foreigners as a security measure. The Veltroni measures provided the template for Berlusconi’s sicurezza (security) anti-immigration policies, which contributed to his landslide victory in the 2008 election. Church critics of those policies are dismissed as cattocommunisti (Catholic Communists).
When President Nicolas Sarkozy of France followed Italy’s lead in July by deporting Roma to Bulgaria and Romania, he was sharply criticized by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. “One cannot generalize and take an entire group of people and kick them out,” Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, the council’s secretary, said. The European Commission charged that France was illegally singling out a group of immigrants on the basis of ethnicity. After an internal government memo ordering the dismantling of settlements was leaked to the press, the European Union’s justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, infuriated Sarkozy by likening the expulsions to Nazi deportations. The commission has since dropped its claim after France promised to amend its laws.
Both France and Italy have used levels of unemployment and crime in Roma settlements to justify the demolitions and expulsions. Yet the existence of the camps owes much to policies in those countries that ghettoize the Roma rather than integrate them, unlike Spain, which has pursued policies of education, health and lodging for the estimated 500,000 Roma there. As long as western European anxieties increase over jobs, crime and immigration, the Roma—visible, dark-skinned, living on the edges of cities—will continue to offer an easy target for populist politicians.