'Serious Concern' about Xenophobia Council of Europe Lambasts Italy for 'Xenophobic' Environment

A series of racist incidents in Italy against immigrants and Roma has European officials worried. A new report sharply criticizes Italian officials for promoting a "xenophobic" environment, but Italian officials find the criticisms "totally unfounded."

In a report issued Tuesday, the Council of Europe roundly criticized Italy's treatment of its Roma (gypsy) and Sinti minority population and immigrants. The report accuses Italian government officials of promoting a "xenophobic" environment that has spawned an alarming series of violent anti-immigrant attacks.

Authored by Thomas Hammarberg of the Council of Europe -- a human rights watchdog not connected to the European Union -- the report dished up searing criticism of Italy for its treatment of the Roma and Sinti minority population as well as its highly restrictive immigration policies. In particular, Hammarberg lambasted Italy for using "security concerns" to justify its actions.

"Concern about security cannot be the only basis for immigration policy," Hammarberg's report states. "Measures now being taken in Italy lack human rights and humanitarian principles and may spur further xenophobia."

Although Italy is not alone in Europe when it comes to incidents of racism, the frequency and public nature of the recent events there have shocked Europe and the world -- and prompted the Council to issue the report.

The 20-page report was written following Hammarberg's two-day special visit to Rome in mid-June, which came in the wake of the Italian government's approval of a new package of laws aimed at combating illegal immigration. The laws include measures that make it easier to expel foreigners, make illegal immigration a punishable offence and provide for criminal penalties for those renting homes or apartments to illegal immigrants.

One main thrust of the report criticized Italy's failure to protect its Roma and Sinti population, which government estimates put at near 150,000. They live in more than 700 encampments throughout Italy but primarily around Rome, Milan and Naples, according to the Associated Press.

Recent anti-Roma incidents in Italy included:

  • On May 14, four days after a woman complained about a Roma girl allegedly entering her apartment in an attempt to steal her baby, unknown assailants lobbed Molotov cocktails at a Roma encampment outside Naples and then proceeded to destroy it. Police escorted the settlement's estimated 800 residents to safety as a crowd cheered the destruction of their homes.
  • Then, on July 2, shocking photos emerged showing sunbathers in Naples staring, unperterbed, at the bodies of two young Roma girls who drowned and had been pulled onto the beach and covered with towels.
  • Most recently, on July 28, two masked men riding a motorcycle volleyed a Molotov cocktail at a Roma caravan of 20 vehicles traveling through Tuscany. The bomb failed to explode or wound any of the caravan's 60 Roma -- all of whom had Italian citizenship.

These are just a few violent manifestations of the anti-immigration war currently being waged in Italy under the leadership of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The Italian leader was voted back in to power  in April largely on the basis of his center-right People of Freedom (PdL) party's pledge to get tough on crime. The term "crime" in the campaign often served as thinly veiled code for immigrants -- whether legal or illegal -- whom he alleged were behind it.

"The vast majority of Roma and Sinti," Hammarsberg argued, "are in urgent need of effective protection of their human rights, especially their social rights, such as the right to adequate housing and to education"

Hammarberg went so far as to argue that "certain domestic, national and local political forces and figures as well as … certain mass media" had helped fuel the country's rising level of xenophobia.

Hammarberg also admitted to being "seriously concerned" about the state of emergency Berlusconi's government declared last Monday, allegedly as a response to street crime and the flood of immigrants arriving in the country via places such as Lampedusa .

The report also expressed alarm at the government's ongoing census of Roma and Sinti camps, plans to fingerprint gypsy children and its criminalization of so-called "irregular immigration," concluding that Berlusconi's government needed to "apply all necessary measures" to prevent infringements of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Hammarberg also concluded his draft report with a number of recommendations, including providing police forces "with systematic, initial and ongoing education in human rights protection" and creating "an effective national human rights institution... for the promotion and protection of human rights."

A State of Denial ?

Opposition politicians in Italy have responded positively to the report. Maria Paola Merloni, the Democratic Party's spokeswoman for European Union affairs, told the Italian news agency ANSA: "It's a clear message that the government is isolating Italy from Europe."

"Instead of working like other countries to cope with the immigration phenomenon in a structured manner," Merloni added, "(Italy) continues to bandy about propaganda measures and to create a climate of emergency and social alarm that precludes the possibility of integration."

Government leaders, however, criticized the report in strong terms. Italy's Interior Ministry accused the Council of Europe of issuing a report that was "totally unfounded," according to ANSA. The ministry defended its measures as being aimed at "curbing (the) criminal behavior of individuals" rather than at any particular ethnic group.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni responded to Hammarberg's allegations of official support for the environment of xenophobia by calling it "a barefaced lie."

The strongest criticism seems to have come from Mario Borghezio, a member of parliament for the far-right Northern League party. "Once again," Borghezio said, according to ANSA, "the European bureaucrats judge from their comfortable armchairs in northern Europe the emergency measures that our country has had the courage to put into effect."


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