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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Italy’s Matteo Salvini sparks outcry over Roma census plans

Interior minister defended plans to count and deport members of the community, despite widespread opposition

Italy's far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini defended his plans to count the Roma community living in the country and deport those without legal status, despite outrage at home and abroad. Alberto Pizzoli / AFP
Italy's far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini defended his plans to count the Roma community living in the country and deport those without legal status, despite outrage at home and abroad. Alberto Pizzoli / AFP

Italy’s far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini on Tuesday defended his plans to count the Roma community living in the country and to deport those without legal status, despite outrage at home and abroad.

“I’m not giving up and I’m pushing ahead! The Italians and their safety first,” Mr Salvini tweeted, after opposition MPs slammed the idea of a census as “racist” and “fascist”.

The anti-immigrant Mr Salvini – already under fire over refusing to let a rescue ship carrying 630 migrants land in Italy last week – had floated the plan on national television on Monday.

A census would allow the authorities to “see who, how [they live] and how many there are,” he argued.

It would then allow the authorities to study the possibility of expelling Roma of foreign nationality without the proper documentation, he said.

Condemnation of his proposal was rapid and widespread, with not only the opposition parties but also members of the newly-established ruling coalition adding their voices.

Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio – leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement that makes up the coalition alongside Mr Salvini’s League – said any census based on ethnicity would be “unconstitutional”.

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It is the first time that Mr Di Maio has spoken out against his coalition partner and fellow deputy prime minister since the new populist government was sworn in on June 1.

The plan also drew the ire of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

“No one is planning to create files or conduct a census on the basis of ethnicity, which would be unconstitutional because it is clearly discriminatory,” Mr Conte said on Tuesday.

He also called for checks to ensure Roma children had access to school services, “since they are often kept out of compulsory education courses”.

The European Union also weighed in on the controversy.

EU Commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein told journalists that “as a general rule, we cannot deport a European citizen based on ethnic criteria”.

Confronted with the backlash on Tuesday, Mr Salvini sought to clarify his plans.

“It is not our intention to record or take anyone’s fingerprints,” he said, according to a statement from his far-right League party.

“Our goal is a recognition of the situation of Roma camps. We intend to protect thousands of children who are not allowed to attend school regularly.”

Italy’s Jewish community said the idea of a census drew parallels with measures targeting Jews under fascist war-time leader Benito Mussolini.

The “announcement is worrying and evokes memories from just 80 years ago which are sadly increasingly forgotten,” said community leader, Noemi Di Segni.

Mr Salvini already caused a diplomatic crisis with Italy’s EU partners earlier this month when he barred a charity-operated rescue ship with 630 migrants, many of whom were African, from docking.

He has also repeatedly taken aim at the Roma community, making promises to bulldoze their camps during his election campaign.

His calls for a census also drew sharp criticism from the Italian opposition centre-left Democratic Party (PD).

“Yesterday refugees, today the Roma, tomorrow guns for everyone. It must be tiring being nasty,” former premier Paolo Gentiloni tweeted on Monday.

The PD’s leader Matteo Orfini tweeted: “If we really want to carry out the census, I would start with the census of racists and fascists. To better avoid them.”