The Spectre That Haunts Italy: The Systematic Criminalisation of the Roma and the Fears of the Heartland

By Costi, Natassa | Romani Studies, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Spectre That Haunts Italy: The Systematic Criminalisation of the Roma and the Fears of the Heartland


Costi, Natassa, Romani Studies


Within a few months of the Berlusconi government taking office in 2008, the populist coalition reignited the ongoing debate of immigration, social integration, security and crime by launching the government's proposed reform of the 'security packet' to curb violent immigrant crime. This article examines the implications of the reform on the Roma communities living in Rome and the debate that it has provoked in the context of the broader political discussion, which has developed in Italy since the 1990s, regarding immigration control and the securitisation of immigration. Utilising the theories of Human Security and Stress, the article sheds light on the way in which right-wing populism has come to strike a chord with the Italian people and echo the fears of the other to galvanise support for its anti-immigrant and anti-Roma reforms. The article identifies how political discourse and government policy have not only sought to represent the electorate's needs, buthave also helped to (re)construct them, fuelling social hostility and further segregating the Roma community from Italian society.

Keywords: Populism, stress, threat perception, human security, Roma, crime

I. Introduction

In January 2008, amidst another political crisis in Italy, the fragile Olive Tree (L'Ulivo) coali tion was withering under publi c pressure for a sense of security in the face of an extraordinary rise in crime, increasingly connected to immigration. The intensifying anti-immigrant rhetoric exploded into hostile violence in October 2007 when an Italian woman was brutally murdered by a Romanian immigrant in Tor di Quinto, a zone on the periphery of Rome where one of the largest Roma camps exists. This was the final straw in a spate of attacks blamed on foreigners that year and prompted the government to implement a series of security measures - labelled the 'security packet' - to curb violent immigrant crime.1 What followed was a systematic racist backlash by both the authorities and the Italian society, where the Roma communities in particular became the target for hate crimes2 (Human Rights First (HRF) 2008).

The issue of crime and immigration further undermined the waning centreleft government and paved the way for the resurgence of Silvio Berlusconi's Popolo delia Libertà (PdL)3 and Umberto Bossi's Lega Nord (LN). Accusing their opposition of being too lax on immigration and ignoring the issue of rising crime, the right-wing populists were able to convince the electorate that they would ensure 'public security' and place political power back into the hands of the people* (Rondinelli 2009), After winning the national elections in April 2008 the centre-right coalition diligently set out what it had promised during its electoral campaign: to provide protection against the immigrants or, as Berlusconi stated in his first day of oifice, the "army of evil" (HRF 2008: 113), By spring, Italian hostility towards the Roma communities had spiralled out of control5 and on the 2ist May 2008 the centre-right government declared a national 'state of emergency' and introduced their version of the security packet.

Amongst the strict anti-immigrant measures within the security packet, the measures provided more authority to the local mayors; a power that Gianni Alemanno astutely embraced. Alemanno, the post -fascist and member of the Alleanza Nazionale (now PdL), won the mayoral elections on the promise to implement the new security policy recently signed by his governing coalition. Indeed, his measures to 'secure Rome'6 included a tough approach on crime with a sudden bolster of police patrolling the streets and the expulsion of thousands of Roma travellers living in illegal settlements around the city (HRF 2008).

In essence, this article will seek to explain why and how the Roma population came to be classified as an emergency' in the city of Rome against the backdrop of escalating social hostilities in 2007 and 2008. …

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