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Protesters in Rome make their feelings clear after Matteo Salvini pledged to create a ‘register’ of Roma people. Photograph: Getty Images

Outcry over far-right Italian minister’s call for Roma ‘register’

WT24 Desk

Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, promised not to back down from his call for a new census of the country’s Roma community on Tuesday, even as critics said that his drive to root out and expel non-Italians was reminiscent of fascist-era race laws,The Guardian reports.

The call for a new “register”, and for all non-Italian Roma to be expelled, has caused the first major rift between Salvini’s League and its Five Star Movement coalition partners, a week after Salvini violated humanitarian law to block a ship carrying more than 600 migrants from docking in Italy, forcing it to divert to Spain.

Luigi Di Maio, the leader of the anti-establishment M5S, called Salvini’s order “unconstitutional”. A similar census pitched by the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was blocked by an Italian court.

It was also lambasted by Noemi Di Segni, the president of Italy’s union of Jewish communities, who said the proposal recalled the fascist race laws of the late 1920s and 1930s. The former centre-left prime minister Paolo Gentiloni also tweeted his disgust, saying: “Yesterday the refugees, today the Roma, tomorrow guns for all.”

At first, Salvini seemed prepared to back down from his new policy – saying he was only seeking to ensure that Roma children were being adequately looked after – but in a tweet on Tuesday afternoon he promised to stand by his call for mass expulsions.

“I don’t quit and we’re moving forward,” he said in a tweet. He also pointed to a 2012 proposal by politicians in Milan, which included a call for a census of the Roma community in the city. That register, according to an article in Corriere della Sera, was part of a project to help families and children overcome “discrimination and the denial of dignity” and opposing “irregularity and illegality”.

Salvini said such proposals were deemed good when they came from the left, but racist when they were proposed by him. “Italians and their security comes first,” he wrote.

The row is the first sign of a potentially serious split between Salvini and Di Maio, who has been overshadowed in the first weeks of government and appears eager to rein in the far-right leader. The two parties – Salvini’s League and Di Maio’s M5S – are both populist, but the League has tended to be much more outspoken about its xenophobic and racist attitudes towards migrants and non-Italians.

Salvini’s intense focus on immigration and “foreigners” has collided with M5S’s priorities of economic fairness and labour policy.

Even if M5S tries to wrestle the agenda from Salvini, polls show that Italians are backing the interior minister, who is now polling about equal to Di Maio, at 29%, in terms of popularity.

The Roma community has long been a target of Salvini, whose rise to prominence often involved press appearances at Roma camps, which he has frequently threatened to raze. Few minorities are treated with as much contempt in Italy as the Roma, who face prejudice and stereotypes that are deeply ingrained in the social consciousness.

On Monday Salvini ordered the census and the removal of all non-Italian Roma – which he called an “answer to the Roma question” – and said he wanted to know “who, and how many” there were. “Unfortunately we will have to keep the Italian Roma because we can’t expel them,” Salvini said on Telelombardia.

Salvini is on record as having praised Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist leader, and his new policy has sparked comparisons by the centre-left Democratic party to ethnic cleansing rules introduced in the late 1920s that also targeted the Roma.

“The interior minister does not seem to know that a census on the basis of ethnicity is not permitted by the law,” Carlo Stasolla, president of the Associazione 21 Luglio, which supports Roma rights, told the Ansa news agency.

“We also recall that Italian Roma have been present in our country for at least half a century and sometimes they are ‘more Italian’ than many of our fellow citizens.”

Francesco Palermo, a former senator in Italy and human rights expert who has defended the rights of Roma, said it would be legally impossible to pursue the creation of an ethnic-specific census and expulsions as Salvini described, because the issue had already been taken up by Italian courts in the past, where it was rejected.

But he said the bigger problem was that the reaction to Salvini was generally positive, and that his popularity was growing despite the extreme nature of his positions.

“It is very simple and very scary. Except for intellectuals and certain journalists, most people would say there is nothing wrong with this, and that is the tricky point. Salvini knows this. It is a just a means to get political support,” Palermo said.

He added that reactions would be different if Salvini was targeting other groups of people who face discrimination, but that racist views about the Roma are “innate” among many people in Italy. Up to 180,000 Roma live in Italy, about 43% of whom are Italian citizens.

About 4,000 Roma live in state-sanctioned ghettos in Rome, according to a 2013 report by Amnesty International. These out-of-city ghettoes consist of pre-fabricated containers or mobile homes in fenced-off areas, often without adequate sanitation or clean drinking water. Inhabitants are excluded from other social housing despite many having lived in Italy for generations.

An Italian court in 2015 ordered the city of Rome to dismantle some of the state-sanctioned Roma facilities, after it said the capital was guilty of ethnic discrimination.

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