Italy’s Roma are among the country’s poorest and most marginalized communities, with a long history of discrimination that has only intensified in recent years. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that as many as 85 per cent of Italians hold negative views towards Roma, reflected in high levels of hate crime and enduring stereotypes against the community.
Today it is estimated that around 180,000 Roma are in Italy, 35,000 of whom are forced to live in decrepit and dangerous camps at the edges of towns without access to sanitation, running water or other services. These settlements, besides being under constant threat of eviction by local authorities, have regularly been attacked by racist groups, with politicians themselves at times encouraging the violence. Following the announcement in March 2015 by Pope Francis of the 2016 Jubilee of Mercy in Rome –a major religious celebration expected to bring thousands of pilgrims and tourists to the capital –local authorities used the event as a pretext to carry out further forced evictions of Roma settlements, which tripled to an average of nine evictions per month. Far-right and xenophobic political parties in Italy –especially the Lega Nord (Northern League) –took to Italian TV and social media to campaign against Roma settlements, with Matteo Salvini, leader of the party, urging citizens to ‘raze Roma camps with bulldozers’. This sparked vehement reactions from leftwing parties, which rejected Salvini’s proposal and called for more effective and inclusive actions to integrate the Roma minority.
While strengthening legal protections for the community is an important step in improving the situation of Roma, cultural expression and interaction also have an important role in addressing popular attitudes and misconceptions about the community. As a result, some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on advocacy and social emancipation for Roma in Italy have developed programmes that explore the potential of the arts to engage different communities, break down barriers and enable those without a public platform to express themselves. Among other activities, the organization 21 Luglio previously developed a programme that seeks to address the barriers and discrimination that Roma frequently experience at school by bringing them together with non-Roma children to engage in dance and theatre –an accessible and effective way to bring different communities together. Another rights group, Roma Onlus, also works to empower Roma through teaching Roma history and customs to raise awareness among other Italians of the community’s rich heritage. One project, for example, has focused on traditional Roma cuisine as a way of engaging non-Roma. Initiatives such as these can be powerful platforms to break down barriers and counter negative representations of Roma disseminated by media, right-wing politicians and racist groups. One of the challenges that Italy’s Roma face is that, since they are widely ostracized, the community is largely segregated from other Italians –a fact that can enable harmful or misleading representations to take root. Cultural engagement, by raising awareness and promoting interaction, not only helps to undermine hate speech but can also enhance the community’s sense of identity.
By Sara Vincini
Originally published in State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2016.
Photo: Roma and non-Roma children perform a play in an Italian school about the history of Roma people. Credit: 21 Luglio.