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The Italian Government's Plans for Romanians: the Return of Collective Expulsions?

Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007

"Is the Romanian bogeyman destined to become Italians' new nightmare?" This was the question raised by Maria Luisa Agnese in a Nov. 1 column in the Italian daily the Corriere della Sera, suggestively titled "The Specter of the 'Monsters' from Europe."

Two days earlier, on Oct. 30, Giovanna Reggiani, the 47-year-old wife of a navy officer, was found half-naked and barely alive in a ditch near the Tor di Quinto train station on the outskirts of Rome. Reggiani had been robbed and savagely beaten. Taken in a coma to the Sant'Andrea hospital, she would subsequently die there of her injuries. The police were alerted to the crime by a resident of an illegal encampment of Romanian Roma, or "gypsies," not far from the train station. Another resident of the same encampment, the 24-year-old Nicolae Romulus Mailat, would be charged with her murder. Led to Mailat by his countrywoman who first alerted them, the police would find him in blood-stained clothing and with scratches on his face. Mailat would confess only to having robbed Reggiani. An additional charge of sexual assault remains in suspense for the moment while awaiting the results of the autopsy.

The suspected murderer had a criminal record in Romania. Although Mailat had never been charged with such serious crimes, he was placed in a youth detention center at the age of 14 on account of a variety of misdemeanors and in 2006 he was sentenced to three years in prison for robbery. The sentence, however, was never carried out and Mailat left for Italy -- taking advantage of the liberty of movement enjoyed by Romanian citizens in the European Union since Romania joined the EU in January 2007.

In light of the horror that such a brutal crime inspires, it is understandable that Italian politicians and media commentators were quick to express their indignation. Many of them, however, went beyond the facts of the Reggiani case in order to denounce what they depicted as a full-fledged "Romanian emergency" (as the Oct. 31 edition of the newspaper Il Giornale put it). The Italian media passed in review a series of recent cases of robbery, assault and even murder involving Romanian citizens, thus encouraging rage against Romanians in general. (See, for instance, a Nov. 1 article in La Repubblica titled "Romanians and Violence: 2007, the Black Year.")

Citing some of these incidents, the mayor of Rome himself, Walter Veltroni, said that they pointed to the arrival in Italy of immigrants who did not simply come to Italy to live, but rather "whose principal characteristic is crime." In a press conference held the day after the attack on Reggiani, Veltroni insisted that he did not want to make generalizations, before adding that, nonetheless, "if 75 percent of the persons arrested come from a single country . . . then there is a specific problem." "Before the entry of Romania into the European Union," Veltroni asserted, "Rome was the safest city in the world" (La Repubblica, Oct. 31; Corriere della Sera, Oct. 31).

Rome, Roma, Romanians and Racism

Veltroni's shocking 75 percent figure, the source for which is unclear, became a standard reference in the media coverage, thus encouraging precisely the generalization that the mayor of Rome said he did not want to make. The figure is apparently supposed to refer to the percentage of Romanians among foreigners arrested in the region of Rome since the start of 2007. But shorn of context, as it so often was, it seemed to suggest the even more shocking conclusion that Romanians had quite simply been responsible for 75 percent of all crime!

More precise police statistics for 2006 were also given prominent play in the media and supposedly confirmed the "specific" dangerousness of Romanians, as Walter Veltroni put it. On closer inspection, however, they do precisely the contrary. Thus, Romanians were found to occupy first place in the 2006 police statistics for crimes committed by foreigners in a number of different categories: for example, 15.4 percent of all murders committed in Italy by foreigners were committed by Romanians; as well as 16.2 percent of all sexual assaults, 19.8 percent of all burglaries, and 15 percent of all acts of extortion. (Il Giornale, Nov. 1; Corriere della Sera, Nov. 2). A grim record indeed -- until, that is, one realizes that Romanians are also the single largest group of foreigners in Italy, representing 15.1 percent of all immigrants or some 556,000 persons. (See Imigrazione: Dossier statistico 2007, Caritas/Fondazione Migrantes, p. 4.) The large number of Romanian immigrants in Italy reflects the longstanding cultural affinities between the two countries, as well as the linguistic proximity of the Italian and Romanian languages. The contribution of the Romanian immigrants appears, moreover, to extend beyond the crime statistics. Thus, for example, the Romanian daily Cotidianul (Nov. 6) calculated that Romanians legally resident in Italy account for fully 1 percent of the country's GDP.

Nonetheless, despite the confident denials of European Commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger (La Repubblica, Nov. 5), the possibility of some linkage between increased crime in Italy and Romania's accession to the European Union cannot be excluded. The elimination of visa requirements among EU member states, and of border controls altogether at the interior of the so-called "Schengen Space," inevitably allows for some degree of "transference" of social problems among EU member states. Perhaps more to the point, the discrepancy in EU law between the formally guaranteed freedom of circulation and continuing restrictions on the right to work for citizens of new member states has the perverse consequence of positively encouraging work on the black market and the development of criminal networks.

The proliferation on the outskirts of Italian cities of shanty towns -- like the one outside of which the tragic events of Tor de Quinto occurred -- is, moreover, a glaring reality. Such camps are principally inhabited by Roma or "gypsies," as they have traditionally been known. The coverage in the Italian and indeed the international media, however, has created the impression that "gypsy" encampments -- and whatever problems for public safety may be associated with them -- are a "specifically" Romanian problem. Indeed, the coverage in the media -- reproducing a confusion that is widespread in Europe -- largely elided the distinction between Roma and Romanians altogether. In fact, even based on the most liberal estimates, only some 5-10 percent of the Romanian population consists of Roma and Roma have long been present throughout continental Europe: in several countries (Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Spain) in a proportion roughly equal to or greater than in Romania. The proliferation of Roma camps points to the difficulties that all European countries, including Italy, have had integrating Roma minorities.

Next Page: The image of the 'criminal Romanian' disseminated by the Italian media. . .

If the purpose of media commentators and politicians in downplaying the Roma identity of the perpetrators in many of the highly publicized "Romanian" crimes was to avoid charges of racism, the only result has been to re-channel racist prejudice toward Romanians as a whole. The image of the "criminal Romanian" disseminated in the Italian media -- and reinforced by a supposedly "Leftist" politician like Walter Veltroni -- has already had disastrous, and entirely predictable, effects. A string of xenophobic incidents in Italy bear witness to the increase in anti-Romanian sentiment. Thus, only days after the attack on Giovanna Reggiani, a group of masked assailants attacked four Romanians in a shopping center in Rome. Three of the Romanians had to be hospitalized: one in serious condition and requiring surgery (Corriere della Sera, Nov. 2). Three days later, a bomb was set off during the night in front of a Romanian grocer's shop in Monterotondo in the region of Rome. The perpetrators painted a Celtic cross on the wall and the words "We'll break your heads" (Corriere della Sera, Nov. 5). During a soccer match in Rome on Nov. 3, the Romanian player Adrian Mutu of the soccer club Fiorentina was the target of racist taunts from supporters of the Roman club Lazio, who called him a "shitty gypsy" (Evenimentul zilei, Nov. 5).

Expulsions and EU Law

It is, above all, the institutional response of the Italian authorities to the Reggiani murder that has attracted attention across Europe. Amidst the emotionally charged atmosphere and media frenzy of the aftermath of the attack, calls for "immediate expulsions" were quickly heard (Il Giornale, Oct. 31). Walter Veltroni himself -- not only the mayor of Rome, but also the chairman of the Democratic Party, which forms part of Italy's governing coalition -- called for firm measures in evoking the prospect of expulsions.

After some initial hesitation, on Oct. 31, the Italian government of Romano Prodi adopted an emergency decree authorizing the "removal" from Italy -- a euphemism for expulsion -- of citizens of EU member states for "imperative reasons of public security." According to the wording of the law, sufficient grounds are considered to obtain when the EU citizens in question "have displayed behaviors that are contrary to human dignity or fundamental human rights or, more precisely, public safety, thus making their presence on the national territory incompatible with normal conditions of cohabitation."

This formulation is so vague that it, in effect, gives Italian authorities a large measure of discretionary power. The law will not only apply to persons who already have a criminal record, but also to those who are only suspects or whom police authorities determine are a danger to public safety merely by virtue of a hypothetical "latent dangerousness" -- as Milanese Justice of the Peace Vito Dattolico put it, underscoring the law's "fuzziness" (Il Giornale, Nov. 6). It is striking, moreover, that the procedures to be applied are the same as those laid down in the Italian law on the expulsion of persons who are not citizens of EU member states.

The obvious question is whether such a decree can possibly be consistent with EU law. While the European directive of April 29, 2004, on the liberty of circulation does indeed concede the possibility of expelling citizens of EU member states for reasons of public safety, it lays down that such a measure can only be taken on the basis of the "personal conduct" of an individual. It specifies in the same paragraph (Article 27(2)), moreover, that a prior criminal conviction does not constitute sufficient grounds for an expulsion. Note that in the Italian law the existence of such a criminal record does not even constitute a necessary condition for proceeding to an expulsion. Furthermore, the EU directive lays down that general security motives cannot justify expulsions. Now, it is completely clear from the context that the adoption of the Italian decree aims precisely to fulfill a general objective of combating the ostensible "criminal tendencies" of an entire group. Thus, for example, the Prefect of Rome, Carlo Mosca, announced that he was going promptly to sign the first expulsion orders: "a hard line is necessary," Mosca explained, "since in the face of such animals one has to respond with the greatest possible severity" (La Repubblica, Nov. 2).

For the moment, EU authorities have limited themselves to underscoring that collective expulsions are prohibited. Nonetheless, from the start of the "crisis" precipitated by the death of Giovanna Reggiani, Italian papers reported plans to expel thousands of Romanian citizens (Corriere della Sera, Nov. 2): starting, more precisely, with a first group of some 5000, according to the daily La Repubblica (Nov. 2).

Europe is thus again faced with the prospect of collective expulsions. This prospect is all the more worrisome inasmuch as the target of these expulsions are EU citizens. It would appear that in Europe some Europeans are regarded as more European than others

Cristina Arion was born in Bucharest where she studied political science at the University of Bucharest. She is presently completing a Ph.D. in international and European law at the University of Paris-Sud.

For related news, see the blogpost "All Criminals? Italian Police Raid Romanian Actress's Hotel Room"

Photo: Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi