Rome census reveals the hopes and fears of gypsies

From: “AFP” Rome Jul 22 2008

Italy’s policy towards immigrants — notably ethnic Romanians, many of them Roma — has come under intense scrutiny since Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said last month that security forces would fingerprint gypsies. About 50 people, mostly gypsies, or Roma, live in one camp outside Rome without water or electricity, among rats and in shocking hygiene conditions. “Have you come to hunt us or help us?” asked Rogi when Red Cross volunteers arrived at his camp to conduct a census as part of the Berlusconi government’s controversial crackdown on immigrants.

Like other inhabitants of the camp, Rogi, a member of the Roma minority from Romania, greeted the volunteers with suspicion. The 10 volunteers made their way between the tents, shacks, bits of furniture and mattresses in the camp hidden among the tall grass and reeds between a road and railway track in southwest Rome. While gypsies have been fingerprinted in Milan and Naples, authorities in Rome are opposed to the policy. “Will you answer some questions?” a Red Cross worker asked Ramona Nae and her brother Remus, two Romanians aged in their thirties. “No. Why have you come here? What we need is a better life and we aren’t going to get that by filling in questionnaires,” said Remus, throwing a suspicious glance at the Italian and foreign press covering the operation.

“Hang on,” said another woman. “They are here to provide us with medical help, milk for the children, not turn us in to the police. Maybe we’ll get a house through them.” Like her, most residents agree to answer the questions of the volunteers, who are not accompanied by police officers as they had expected. “We ask them their name, age, nationality, if they have been vaccinated, if they have been sick, and if their children are going to school. They are not obliged to answer,” said one young volunteer. “Mostly they have worms, gastro-intestinal illnesses and bronchitis,” said another worker, who was nursing a small boy with a fever.

“Very few of the children have been vaccinated or enrolled in school.” A short distance away, other members of the Red Cross were taking the gypsies one by one into a truck. After being photographed, they are given a health card. “With this document they can go to health centres. For our part, we build up a wealth of data that only the Red Cross can access. As for the authorities, we can provide them with anonymous information so that they are able to assess the camps, hygiene and health conditions,” explained one of the workers. Italian Red Cross President Massimo Barra said the census was “a way of getting to know the inhabitants of the camps better.” “It isn’t a police operation,” said Fernando Capuano, president of the Rome branch of the Red Cross.

“In its decree ordering a census in the travellers’ camps, the government left it up to the local authorities to decide whether to use a non-governmental organisation, and whether or not to take fingerprints. “Unlike in Naples where it’s the police doing the census and taking fingerprints, the Rome authorities called on the Red Cross because of its experience on the ground,” he said. Personal security was a top campaign issue in April’s vote in the wake of several high-profile crimes implicating Romanian immigrants. According to the Sant’Egidio lay Catholic charity, between 130,000 and 150,000 Roma live in Italy. Many have Italian citizenship, while those of Romanian nationality have freedom of movement within the rest of the European Union. The Red Cross estimates the census in Rome, which has 70 camps, will take until September.