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Italy Plans To Fingerprint Roma

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Italy is facing condemnation for a plan to fingerprint Roma people, also known as gypsies. The European parliament has called the plan an act of racial discrimination, but Italy's right-wing government has vowed to press ahead with a census of all Roma, including children. That census is part of a crackdown on crimes for which the Roma are often blamed. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

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SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Hundreds of Roma people gathered last week on the dusty grounds of Rome's former slaughterhouse. Most of them were Italian citizens; some were not. They came from all over Italy to discuss what to do. Forty-five-year-old Giovanni Balazova(ph) said his ancestors settled in Italy 500 years ago.

Mr. GIOVANNI BALAZOVA (Italian Roma): (Through translator) We don't know why the government is targeting us. We're not restless nomads. We move around because we work at fairs and circuses, where we run merry-go-rounds and carousels. Our people have been doing this for centuries.

POGGIOLI: Many foreign Roma are in hiding or have already been expelled. In recent days young Roma beggars have disappeared from the streets of major cities. Roma with Italian citizenship are just as afraid as the foreigners. A few weeks ago, Italy's highest appeals court handed down a decision that basically said it's acceptable to brand all Roma as thieves, a ruling that could be seen as providing judicial backing for the government crackdown on all Roma.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

POGGIOLI: A man took to the stage and told the crowd they don't want us to perform anymore.

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Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language).

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Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language).

POGGIOLI: I appeal to you, he added. Tell the politicians we want to make music for Italy. Italy belongs to us.

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Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

POGGIOLI: The three-month-old right-wing coalition government promoted the fingerprinting measure as a means to fight crime and identify illegal immigrants for expulsion, and it reacted angrily to the European parliament resolution. But Interior Minister Roberto Maroni shifted gears and now stresses the fingerprinting has a humanitarian purpose.

Minister ROBERTO MARONI (Ministry of the Interior, Italy): (Through translator) We want to help these minors, these invisible children who are exploited sexually, who are sold for their organs, who are sent by their parents to rob others.

POGGIOLI: There are an estimated 160,000 Roma in Italy, 90,000 of whom are Italian citizens. The Roma fingerprinting measures sparked outrage also among many non-Roma Italians.

Early last week, thousands gathered to give their fingerprints to the interior minister in protest against what they call an act of discrimination and persecution. Writers, actors, students and ordinary folk stood in line under the scorching sun, and as they went home they proudly displayed their ink-stained fingers.

Julio Columbo(ph), a senator of the opposition Democratic Party, recalled that hundreds of thousands of Roma were killed by the Nazis alongside Jews in the Holocaust, and he evoked the painful memory of the anti-Semitic laws imposed by dictator Benito Mussolini exactly 70 years ago this month.

Senator JULIO COLUMBO (Democratic Party, Italy): What happened is the gaining ground of a subculture of hatred and exclusion against foreigners that reminds me of the worst fascist tradition.

POGGIOLI: Marco Perduca(ph), human rights activist and senator for the small Radical Party, pins much of the blame on Italian TV, especially the networks owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, for linking crime to foreign immigrants, Roma in particular.

Senator MARCO PERDUCA (Radical Party, Italy): We have to educate the public, and you can only do it counter, acting against the official propaganda that wants to put them aside and label them as criminals instead of a group with rights and traditions and religions and languages.

POGGIOLI: Italy's crime rate remains one of the lowest in Europe, but mounting fear and unease over the rapidly growing wave of immigrants have created a mood of xenophobia. However, there's at least one positive effect for the Roma. It has attracted the attention of the European Union, which has long ignored the plight of the largest, poorest and least-known minority on the continent.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.