Academic journal article The George Washington International Law Review

Zingari or Italiani?: Discrimination against Roma in Italy and the European Court of Human Rights

Academic journal article The George Washington International Law Review

Zingari or Italiani?: Discrimination against Roma in Italy and the European Court of Human Rights

Article excerpt


On May 14, 2008 in Naples, Italy, a gypsy camp was burning. A few days before, a local woman had told police that a gypsy (or "Roma") woman had entered her apartment and tried to steal her child.1 In retaliation, local residents attacked the camp, home to about 800 Roma, with iron bars and Molotov cocktails.2 The locals watched and applauded as the camp burned, chanting "fuori, fuori" ("out, out") and taunting firefighters that doused the blaze by shouting, "You put these fires out, we start them again[!]"3

A class of nine- to eleven-year-olds at a nearby primary school, asked by their teachers to reflect on this event, produced a series of drawings and essays supporting the violence.4 Roberto Maroni, Italy's interior minister, responded, "That is what happens when Gypsies steal babies."5 Umberto Bossi, head of the Northern League party (a key ally in former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's coalition government)6 said, "People are going to do what the political class cannot."7 The region's governor and Naples' mayor condemned the violence, but the camp was repeatedly attacked over the next two weeks.8

The Italian government's attitude towards the "Roma problem" has had the effect of inflaming anti-Roma sentiment in Italian cities, encouraging violence and racism. Some right-wing politicians are openly anti-Roma.9 Government policies have moved Roma to camps on the outskirts of Italian cities, isolating and segregating them from the rest of the population.10 Special legislation has targeted Roma, declaring their presence in Italy a cause of social harm requiring emergency action.11 In the face of popular sentiment against the Roma, the Italian government has caved to its constituents, seeking to salve or exploit Italians' fears rather than attempt to solve the problems of Roma immigration and integration.12

This Note argues that the Italian Roma must look outside Italy to ensure protection of their fundamental human rights. Specifically, Roma in Italy should look to the European community, where Roma human rights issues are being given increased attention. So far, most of that attention has focused on eastern Europe, where Roma are a larger presence.13 Roma in Italy also merit the atten- tion of European human rights institutions, despite their smaller numbers, because they also face discriminatory conditions: housing and immigration laws, as Roma rights groups have pointed out, disparately disadvantage Roma and push them to the fringes of Italian society.14 Furthermore, Italian legislation targeting the Roma as a cause of social harm sets a dangerous precedent in a country where polls show widespread popular hostility towards the Roma. Both these problems-laws that disparately affect Roma and laws that target Roma-can be addressed under expanding European anti-discrimination norms.

Section II provides background about the Roma and the Italian legal framework in which they live. Part A outlines the history and culture of the Roma, information that is helpful to understanding why their integration into European culture has been problematic. Part B discusses Italian popular attitudes towards the Roma and the way politicians involve them in political discourse. Part C describes the Italian laws that disproportionately affect Roma, and Part D outlines the 2008 legislation specifically targeting Roma and criticism of it. Part E describes the human rights to which Roma are entitled under Italian and European Law, as well as the methods of enforcing these rights, particularly in the European Court of Human Rights. Section III argues that a 2007 case, D.H. and Others v. Czech Republic, signals a trend in European anti-discrimination law that could benefit the Roma of Italy. After outlining these basic concepts, this Note will argue that the European Court of Human Rights provides the best outlet for Italian Roma seeking protection of their basic human rights.


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