July 30, 2008 / 12:30 AM / 9 years ago

Racism in Italy? Roma crackdown draws critics

ROME (Reuters) - A curious thing happened when Italian sunbathers near Naples found themselves steps away from the bodies of two Roma girls who drowned in the sea -- absolutely nothing.

The girls had gone swimming, got into difficulty and drowned, despite a rescue attempt.

Once their corpses were dragged ashore and covered with towels, many beachgoers went back to the task in hand, sunning themselves for an hour until police took the bodies of Cristina, 11, and her sister Violetta, 12, away.

The reaction, or lack of it, was captured in a widely published photograph that has resonated in Italy and abroad. It has raised questions about attitudes towards Roma as Italy pursues a "census" of minorities as a way of tackling crime.

Conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi won a landslide victory in April's election on a promise to get tough on crime, which many Italians blame on immigrants.

"Indifference isn't an emotion for human beings," said Naples Cardinal Crescenzo Sepe. "And it is much less one that can and should be directed at Violetta and Cristina, already marked by a life of hardship and perhaps weakened by prejudice."

An estimated 140,000 Roma, also known as "gypsies" and "nomads," live in Italy, many in squalid shantytowns on the fringes of cities.

Although many are citizens of Italy or other European countries, critics say they are often treated like a sub-class of immigrants and targeted by police.

Religious groups compared an Italian government plan to fingerprint Roma and their children to the tagging of Jews by Nazis in the 1930s. The plan was condemned by the European Parliament and by Romania, from where many Roma hail. It now appears to have been dropped.

RACISM?

Marco Rossi, a barman in central Rome, counts himself among those Italians who think Roma should be fingerprinted and catalogued to help fight crime, and doesn't feel that makes him a racist.

"Racism is when you burn them out of their camps," Rossi said, speaking at a cafe in Rome. A customer nods in agreement.

Nearby, a right-wing youth group hung a poster demanding "Fingerprints and a Census Right Away" at Roma camps.

A European Union survey showed 47 percent of Italians are "uncomfortable" around Roma -- the highest figure in the 27-nation bloc, tying with the Czech Republic.

Only 5 percent of Italians said they had Roma friends, compared with 32 percent in Spain and 11 percent in Britain.

U.N. rapporteurs criticized Berlusconi's government for "aggressive and discriminatory rhetoric" against Roma, saying it created an environment of "hostility, antagonism and stigmatization."

Rights group Amnesty International called on EU member states to speak out against "a full fledged campaign against Roma."

"Let's be clear: what we are seeing is a witch-hunt disguised as security concerns," said Nicolas Beger, director of Amnesty's EU Office.

But Rossi and other advocates of the census say the situation is untenable. They say Roma should not be left to live in squalid shantytowns, allowing generations to be born into the margins of society, children begging on the streets instead of going to school.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni says Italy is engaged in a "humanitarian mission" to help the Roma community and held out the promise of Italian citizenship to abandoned Roma children, saying: "6,000 Roma children don't even know what a school is."

BACK TO ROMANIA?

A small Roma shantytown alongside a highway was the first in Rome to undergo a "census" by the Red Cross, a programme set to run through September.

Partly to show that it was not going to fingerprint Roma, and that identification was voluntary, the Red Cross brought along journalists as it started its work.

"I work, I work," said Remos Nae, father of four children who arrived in Italy three months ago. His legs were pocked with open sores, flies crawling on them.

He pointed to a pile of scrap metal he collected and said he sold it to make money.

Red Cross workers asked his family if they wanted to register for an "identity card," saying it would allow them to have free medical care.

One woman, half her face scarred from burns, refused the registration. She nursed a baby and looked away when reporters tried to speak to her through a translator.

Nae registered, but doubted it would help.

"In a few weeks, the police come and then we go back to Romania," he speculated.

Editing by Philip Pullella and Janet Lawrence

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