Inside Italy's Ban on Squeegee People

Anna doesn't know her last name. She says she was born in Romania in 1971, but without documentation to prove it she enjoys none of the benefits that European Union citizenship should bring. Instead she lives in a reeking squatter camp under Rome's Ponte Milvio bridge, surrounded by dirt and the harsh smell of urine. "We have always been here," she says defensively as she emerges from the Tiber's underbrush at 7:30 one recent morning. "We have never bothered anyone."

Many Italians would disagree. In recent weeks Italy has declared itself under siege by the people they call zingari and sinti, pejorative local terms for Roma, who also sometimes call themselves gypsies. Headlines from the leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera, scream about "The Invasion of Nomads," Rome's daily Il Messegero begs "Help!" and La Repubblica complains on its front page, "There Are Too Many! Rom Emergency." (Rom is the term used by Italians for the Roma to avoid confusion with the name of their capital.) Walter Veltroni, the mayor of Rome, told a recent press conference that Rom have been found guilty of 75 percent of all petty crimes in the city so far this year. So grave is the situation, he says, that he has asked the ministry of the interior to adopt special regulations that would classify nomadic gypsies as illegal immigrants, allowing the expulsion of even legally resident Romanians and Bulgarians from the country if they are deemed a threat to security.

In addition to asking for help from the national government, Veltroni is taking aggressive steps to get the gypsies off the street. As have the mayors of cities like Venice, Florence and Turin, he has banned once-ubiquitous panhandlers—almost all of them Rom—from washing windshields at traffic intersections. In some cases Rom minors are now treated as adults in the criminal courts, even though Italian minors who commit similar offenses are not. "The situation of public order in Rome is much worse after the massive entrance of Romanians," says Veltroni. "We hope that we can stop this brutal criminality that the city can no longer tolerate."

Removing the squeegee people, however, hasn't worked out quite as well in Italy as it once did for former mayor Rudy Giuliani's anticrime battle in New York. Indeed, stripping the panhandlers of one of their means of support seems to have backfired, sparking a wave of violence inside the Rom community. Last week in Rome a group of Rom from one encampment murdered a 20-year-old Rom man and injured two others in a subway underpass in the residential area of Trieste. Their address was published as the "Terzo Mondo" or "Third World" encampment along the Aniene river in Rome. The week before, two raids on Rom camps around the city garnered a weapons cache with Molotov cocktails, knives, guns and explosives. When the police raided, the camp's residents lit the makeshift huts on fire. In a similar incident in the northern town of Livorno, four Rom children burned to death when Rom residents torched their camp during a police raid.

Europe's nomads, of course, are no strangers to persecution. Long stereotyped as beggars and thieves, the Rom were said to be "opposed to all forms of work when it is laborious and demands great effort" by 18th-century German historian Heinrich Moritz. Almost 200 years later Adolph Hitler rounded them up and sent off to concentration camps alongside the Jews. No one knows for sure how many died at the Nazis' hands; some estimates put the figure as high as 500,000. Prejudices still linger throughout the continent, but they may be harshest in Italy, which has the highest number of nomads in Europe and has been cited by the European Commission as one of 14 countries still practicing discrimination against them. The Censis statistical agency estimates that there are 160,000 Rom in Italy, of whom only 30,000—those from Balkan countries and the former Yugoslavia—are illegal. The remaining 130,000 are either Italians whose roots in the country can be traced back to the 1400s, or else from Bulgaria and Romania, both EU members whose citizens are allowed to live and work in any other EU state.

That status, however, has done little to prevent the community from being treated as a segregated underclass. In recent years the Italian government has spent nearly 15 million euros setting up prefabricated huts in bleak settlements that offer amenities like water and electricity—but also enforce a nighttime curfew. Rome has nine of these encampments, but most Rom prefer to live in the 20 or so makeshift camps scattered around the city. "The city camps are prisons," says Misa, a young woman who panhandles in front of the Santa Maria in Trastevere basilica. Misa, who brings along a different baby every few days to rouse sympathy when she begs, lives in an encampment under the Ponte Sublico along the Tiber River. "They say you can leave [the government camps], but I know people who went there who were just sent back to Romania."

Not everyone excoriates the Rom. Roberto Malini of the EveryOne Group, an advocacy organization that mediates between the gypsies and the government, describes Italy's treatment of them as "dangerous persecution" and warns that it has lowered the life expectancy of the country's Rom community to 47, compared to 80 for Italian citizens. "In other words," he says, "genocide." Groups like Opera Nomadi have been working for decades to integrate the Rom into local communities and have Rom children admitted to local public schools. Massimo Converso, the president of the organization, has launched an initiative with local governments to turn abandoned farmhouses into homes for the group. So far they have managed to place a dozen families in houses near Venice. Some government ministers have also adopted a more moderate tone. "We need to have the courage," says Immigration Minister Paolo Ferrero, "to say to the public that all of the Rom who live in Italy could be integrated."

That's a message the public doesn't seem ready to hear. Asked by NEWSWEEK recently if they would be willing to employ a legally resident Rom, a small group of shopkeepers in Rome's ancient Trastevere district responded with laughter and refusals before launching into tales of thefts by "Zingari." Even more revealing were the remarks by Achille Serra, the prefect of Rome, after his visit to one of the Rom encampments. "There were no women there," Serra told an editor from Corriere della Sera. "Maybe they were all on the Metro pickpocketing. The men were all there sleeping after spending the night robbing houses." With attitudes like that, Italy's Rom are unlikely to be enjoying la dolce vita anytime soon.