April 8 is International Roma Day, a moment when Europe can recognize one of its largest—at 12 million members—and most marginalized groups.
Last year, to commemorate the occasion in Italy, eight young Roma were received by Laura Boldrini, president of the Chamber of Deputies, the Italian Parliament. Later that day, Mario Borghezio, a member of the European Parliament from the Northern League, went on the radio and protested. Using profane language, he denounced the visit and said he hoped the young people hadn’t stolen any of the furniture.
In 2012, FRA, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, published a report examining the situation of Roma in 11 EU member states, including Italy. It is sobering reading. In every country, by every metric used—employment, education, housing and health—Roma were worse off than non-Roma living close by.
Across Europe, only half of Roma children were in preschool or kindergarten and only 15 percent had completed any form of secondary education. Fewer than one in three adults was reported to be in paid employment, and 90 percent lived in households with an income below the national poverty line. In Italy, almost every Roma surveyed lived in a household at risk of poverty, and in more than half the households, someone had gone to bed hungry in the previous month.
Since its formation in 2010, Associazione 21 luglio has focused on improving the rights of Roma in Italy, especially the rights of children, and has fought discrimination where we find it. Originally we concentrated on Rome, but we have more recently taken on a national dimension. We conduct research, producing reports on Roma communities that we use to develop advocacy strategies.
One of the findings of the FRA report, and something that we see every day, is the fact that most Roma are unaware of the rights they have under EU law. And so, in a four-month course offered on weekends, we promote training for Roma activists that introduces them to the concept of human rights and how they can react to discrimination, through the law, for example, and by way of the media.
As any group in the 21st century must, we try to use various media outlets to raise awareness of the issues, but we also monitor the media and look for hate speech that we respond to when we find it. In the run-up to the European elections in May, we recognize that there are many disenfranchised groups whose voices are not being heard. It is especially critical that we speak up at a time when parties on the right openly attack minorities as they seek votes.
Associazione 21 luglio has joined forces with two groups to promote the rights of the silenced and dispossessed—the prisoners’ rights organization Antigone and migrants’ advocates Lunaria. Our joint campaign: Campagna per i diritti, contro la xenophobia (Campaign for Rights, Against Xenophobia) presented our agenda to the Italian press and we produced a handbook for Italian candidates in the elections, showing how they can act to protect the fundamental human rights of Roma, migrants, and prisoners.
The rights we describe are taken for granted by the vast majority of European citizens. For Italy’s migrants, we are asking candidates to commit to ensuring the right to seek asylum, the closure of detention centers, the recognition of the right to vote in local elections, and the standardization of citizenship rights. In Italy’s chronically overcrowded prisons we want to introduce the crime of torture, to guarantee prisoners’ rights to vote, to health care and to vocational training.
For this campaign, Associazione 21 luglio has identified priorities. There are 170,000 to 180,000 Roma and Sinti people in Italy, and one of the most pressing issues are the “nomad” camps where 40,000 of them are forced to live. These camps were first set up in the 1980s in an effort to preserve elements of Roma culture, but they have become detention camps, segregating Roma apartheid-style away from mainstream communities.
Here, on the outskirts of towns and cities, they are isolated from schools and services, placed under 24-hour guard and video surveillance. Nomad camps are metaphors for the general misunderstanding of Roma that persists because most Italians believe Roma are nomadic and seek this kind of life, yet this is not the case at all.
Therefore we call for the closure of these camps (and the use of the term “nomad”), while at the same time suspending evictions from informal Roma settlements. We must resolve the predicament of Roma from the former Yugoslavia and their children who are stateless and lack the documentation they need to join civil society. And we need stronger protection for Roma and Sinti under the law against incitement to racial hatred in public discourse and the media.
The existing framework that protects Roma is very weak. Before the founding of Associazione 21 luglio, there was no human rights organization advocating for Roma in Italy. While some individual politicians are allies, there is no party political support for Roma or Sinti people. Institutions like Senate Commission for the Protection of Human Rights, or UNAR, the National Office Against Racial Discrimination, have little power. Italy’s journalists subscribe to a “Carta di Roma,” a code for covering Roma affairs, but hate speech legislation lacks teeth.
Racist violence and intimidation is increasing in Italy. In mid-March a Roma settlement outside Naples was attacked by a mob following an accusation of sexual assault by Roma against a local girl. Crowds have gathered in Rome to protest the presence of Roma and Sinti, and a bakery put up a sign in the window saying, “Gypsies not allowed.”
It is timely, then, that Associazione 21 luglio, in association with national universities, organized a three-day conference in Rome in the run-up to April 8 to assess the implementation of the national Roma integration strategy that was formulated in 2012. Forty speakers addressed 250 delegates on issues relating to Roma and Sinti, to illustrate best practices as they exist in Italy.
Finding good news can be difficult, but there are successes at the local level, where some mayors and city councils have taken an initiative. Among our speakers was the charismatic Renato Accorinti, elected Mayor of Messina in Sicily in 2013. Accorinti is not a professional politician, and was an activist for years before being elected in 2013. He has been called “the barefoot mayor” and he is far from the corrupt centers of power in Italy. Yet he has managed to help Roma people, showing them how to build their own houses, a strong statement of self-empowerment.
Meanwhile, in Brussels, on March 31, the Commission for Legal Affairs of the European Parliament denied parliamentary immunity to Mario Borghezio for the remarks he made about Roma a year before. It was ruled that what he said had no obvious connection with parliamentary activities, and so the complaint made against Borghezio by Associazione 21 luglio and other Roma NGOs can proceed.
By such means we continue to try to give voice to Roma and Sinti people, a vital task before the May European elections.