The governance of Roma people in Italy: A shifting paradigm

As suggested by the sociologist Luigi Manconi, Roma people(1) are unpleasant to many people and there is no doubt that some of them live committing crimes and inducing their children to beg. Although the Roma, like everyone else, are accountable for their actions, other factors have concurred to shape this situation. This article analyses the effectiveness and the outcome reached by the different policy measures towards Roma people adopted by the Italian Government since the spring of 2008.

The Italian context
The European Commission identified in 2004 the condition of Roma people as one of the ‘most pressing political, social, and human rights issues facing Europe’.(2) In 2013, also the United Nations expressed concern for the very serious human rights and development issues related to these communities, particularly in Europe.(3) In comparison to other minority groups, Roma communities are confronted with higher child mortality rates, shorter life expectancies and limited access to health services, exclusion from schools and low educational attainment, poorer housing conditions and constricted by the scarce availability of sites.

Roma people living in Italy are estimated to range from 110,000 to 180,000, representing about the 0,23% of the total population.(4) A majority of them, about 60%, are Italian citizen, live mostly in permanent houses, and do not adopt any type of nomadic lifestyles. The bulk of the remaining 40% includes groups of Roma that arrived in Italy in recent times.(5) Only 8% of them still practice some form of nomadism while the vast majority of the other Roma people living in Italy have no experience of nomadism.(6) In addition, the percentage of Roma people below the age of 18 years is estimated to represent the 60% of the total, three times higher than the national average for the same age group. (7)

In the light of the aforementioned data, Roma groups currently living in Italy do not compose a homogeneous community but rather have different cultural identities. Nonetheless, these groups are often identified with the exonyms zingari (gipsies) and nomadi (nomads). The former has been adopted even in official documents to indicate the considerable number of Roma communities in Italy while the latter expresses the belief that all or most of these people live a nomadic life.(8) Both terms emphasise and objectify the idiosyncratic traits of these communities, contributing to shape the Gypsy stereotype.

As argued by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in 2008, often Gadje (non-Roma people) and Roma communities have been perceived as dichotomously opposed.(9) Analysing the governance of Roma people in Italy allows us to unveil some of the factors that have contributed to generate such an unbearable situation both for Roma and non-Roma communities.

The State of Emergency
In the run-up to the general election of 2008, the growing number of illegal camps and settlements of Roma people, the many Roma children begging in the streets and the presence of unaccompanied Roma minors increasingly raised local tensions and contributed to amplify the echo of the past but still existing stereotypes and prejudices.(10) Moreover, the atrocious murder of an Italian woman in the outskirt of Rome by a Romanian Roma in November 2007 made the ‘Roma issue’ a topic of national importance.
Roma people climbed the public arena, appearing in the political and media agenda as a major concern for the Italian national security. From the Italian Parliament to popular talk shows, numerous debates were held on what has been called the problem of nomads (problema nomadi). Different voices from both ends of the political spectrum used buzzwords such as emergency, urgency, threat to public safety and public enemy.

Consistent with their promises, immediately after the election in May 2008, the newly formed right wing Government declared a ‘State of Emergency in relation to nomads’ community settlements’ and conferred special powers to the prefects of Milan, Rome and Naples to solve the so-called emergency.(11) The adopted measures ranged from the mass collection of biometric data of Roma groups, to the demolition of shantytowns and the repatriation of EU citizens allegedly posing a threat to public security. These measures were justified as necessary to provide support to individuals in camps and to prevent further degradation of their living conditions, as well as to identify people involved in criminal activities.

However, as suggested by Alessandro Simoni, associate professor of comparative legal systems at the Department of Law of the University of Florence, besides indicating the inclination of the Italian Government towards an emergency approach over a long-term and structural planning, the extraordinary measures undertaken could have contributed to construct a highly racialized ethnic category.(12)

International and national responses
Among the different concerns raised at the international and national level, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe considered the above-mentioned adopted measures: ‘disproportionate in relation to the actual scale of the security threat related to immigration and the situation of Roma settlements’.(13) The former head of UNICEF in Italy, Vincenzo Spadafora, expressed serious concerns about the situation of Roma children in Italy, emphasising the fact that ‘the government would be acting in a discriminatory fashion unless it would have fingerprinted every child in Italy’.(14) Even the former President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano meeting a group of students on the 18th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child argued: ‘We have been told – that they are evil – not only the Roma but also to the Romanians – and therefore we should be scared of them. Nevertheless, we must not be scared. We need to help them to integrate into society.’ (15)

Eventually, in November 2011, the Italian Council of State ruled that the ‘State of Emergency’ declared by the Government was unlawful, claiming that some aspects of the Decree constitute de facto a form of racial discrimination.(16) The Council of State ruled that there was no evidence of a causal link between the existence of Roma’s settlements and an extraordinary and exceptional disruption of order and public security. Hereupon, all the measures undertaken based on the ‘State of Emergency’ were declared illegal.(17)

Further policies: the National Strategy
In 2011, increased attention was given to the inclusion of Roma communities due to the enhanced efforts of the European institutions. The European Commission clearly defined the condition of many of the estimated 10-12 million of Roma people living in the continent as unbearable because of the growing prejudices, intolerance, discrimination and social exclusion experienced by them. (18)
The European Commission established the EU framework for national Roma integration strategy defining the improvement of the Roma situation as a social and economic imperative for the EU and its Member States.(19) In 2012, the Italian Government translated the European indications into action and put in place the new National Strategy for Roma inclusion.(20) The then Minister for Integration Policies and International Cooperation, Andrea Riccardi, strongly supported the adoption of the National Strategy for Roma Integration and on several occasions stressed the importance of changing the security-driven approach on Roma issues to a more inclusive strategy.

In line with the EU framework, the new strategy established four key areas of intervention: education, employment, health, and housing. However, although at the national level the need to put a definitive stop to mainly security-based measures was reaffirmed, at local level the endorsed principles of social justice and equity were not fulfilled. A number of reasons had in fact, limited the implementation of the planned measures.

According to the non-profit organisation 21 Luglio, which stands up for the rights of Roma, a number of weaknesses has to be identified in the lack of clear targets, absence of performance indicators, poor budgeting and lack of monitoring and evaluation tools.(21) Considering the lack of such clear requirements in terms of planning policy, local authorities have continued to postpone the implementation of the strategy, substantially posing at risk the whole policy design.

The UN has assisted in general social inclusion policy processes in EU frameworks, such as by supporting the development of National Action Plans for social inclusion targeting a number of vulnerable groups including Roma. In May 2012, a report on the situation of Roma in 11 EU Member States provided comprehensive data on the socio-economic status of Roma while also examining discrimination and rights awareness. The data also served as background for the European Commission’s simultaneous Communication on progress in this area, as reflected in the National Strategies for Roma Integration.

As stated by the UN “the strategies need to be followed by concrete action”. Too often, capacity in this regard is still poor, particularly at the local level where the real problems are and need to be addressed. For the national strategies to succeed, they need to be operationalized into tangible, results-oriented interventions also at the local level. (22)

Towards a more effective policy
Over the years, a number of reasons have limited the social and economic inclusion of Roma communities in Italy. Although the Roma share part of the responsibility for the lack of integration, other causes have played a key role in this failure.

First, Roma communities have been largely misunderstood and as a consequence anti-Roma sentiments are widespread throughout the country. In 2011, a survey carried out by the Italian Senate Commission on Human Rights found that most of the population have partial or very limited information on the Roma living in Italy. Yet, 84% of the participants presumed that the majority of Roma people adopt nomadic lifestyles; another 92% thought that petty theft and shoplifting are an integral part of the Roma culture; while 82% of the participants believed that those communities have deliberately chosen to live in camp sites at the edge of ‘our cities’. (23)

As Nando Sigona – one of the most prominent experts on Roma issues and fellow at the University of Birmingham – has pointed out, the portrayal of Roma people as nomadic population has been used to reinforce the idea that those people are stateless and deserve different rights from the rest of the population.(24) Nonetheless, most of the groups of Roma that moved to Italy in the last decades had lived a settled life for centuries.(25)
The Roma in the camps tends inevitably to ghettoize in that dimension of social marginalisation and self-government, which is the perfect substrata for illegal business and illicit activity. In the meanwhile, those who live near those settlements are progressively convinced of the fact that Roma people represent a constant threat that have to be addressed.

In this context, it is difficult to find space for integration and empowerment. Nonetheless, one factor could be particularly relevant in planning and implementing policies towards Roma people. The demographic profile of these communities shows that most of the Roma living in Italy are minors. Rather than reinforcing their racial segregation and fuelling a racing marginalisation process, which trap them in a vicious cycle of inequalities, the Italian Government and the Italian local authorities should invest in education, vocational training and in work placement programs. Twenty-nine million euros have already been allocated by the European Union for the Roma inclusion in Italy, non investing properly these resources would have consequences on many future generations both of Roma and non-Roma.

The author

Alberto Mallardo graduated from London Metropolitan University with an MSc in Health and Social Services Management and Policy. His dissertation focused on the housing and planning policies for Roma and Traveller communities in the UK. His interest in Romani people issues stemmed from the experience as a cultural mediator among Roma communities. He did an internship at UNICRI Communication and Public Information Department and is now working in Lampedusa with Mediterranean Hope, a project of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy.

1 Within this work, the term Roma is adopted to indicate groups of people that share similar cultural characteristics, such as Sinti, Camminanti, Kalé, Travellers, Gens du voyage etc.

2 European Commission Directorate-General for Employment and Social Affairs, ‘The Situation of Roma in an Enlarged EU,’ Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 10, 2004.

3 United Nations, ‘The role of the United Nations in advancing Roma inclusion,’ 2013,

4 UNAR, ‘Strategia Nazionale d’Inclusione dei Rom, dei Sinti e dei Camminanti,’ 2012, p. 14

5 Ibidem

6 Paola Arrigoni and Tommaso Vitale, ‘Quale legalità? Rom e gagi a confronto, ’ Aggiornamenti Sociali, (03), 182-194, 2008.

7 Associazione 21 Luglio Onlus, ‘Rapporto Annuale 2014,’ Rome, 8-9, 2014,


9 OSCE, ‘Assessment of the human rights situation of Roma and Sinti in Italy,’ Warsaw: The Hague, 2009.

10 Ibidem p.7

11 G.U. n.122, May 26, 2008,

12 Alessandro Simoni, ‘Per una lettura romanì del pacchetto sicurezza, ’ 2009,

13 OSCE, ‘Assessment of the human rights situation of Roma and Sinti in Italy,’ Warsaw: The Hague, 2009.

14 Tom Kington, ‘Unicef among Critics of Italian Plan to Fingerprint Roma Children,’ The Guardian, June 27, 2008,

15 Giorgio Napolitano, ‘Conclusioni,’ Giornata nazionale per i diritti dell’infanzia e dell’adolescenza sotto l’Alto Patronato del Presidente della Repubblica, November 20, 2007, pp. 49-50.

16 Set. n. 6050 Cons. St.,, November 16, 2011.

17 Although the Italian Government appealed to the Court of Cassation in April 2013 the appeal was rejected by the Court. ERRC ‘Italy: a report by the European Roma Rights Centre,’ 2012,

18 European Commission, ‘Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee of the Regions: An EU framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020,’ April 5, 2011,

19 Ibid.

20 National Office on Anti-Discriminations National Focal Point, ‘National Strategy for the Inclusion of Roma, Sinti and Camminanti communities – European Commission Communication No.173/2011,’ February 28, 2012.

21 Associazione 21 Luglio Onlus, ‘Rapporto Annuale 2014,’ Rome 2014,

22 United Nations, ‘The role of the United Nations in advancing Roma inclusion,’ 2013, p.3,

23 Commissione straordinaria per la tutela e la promozione dei diritti umani, ‘Rapporto Conclusivo dell’indagine sulla condizione di Rom, Sinti e Camminanti in Italia,’ Rome: Senate of the Italian Republic, 2011,

24 Nando Sigona, ‘Figli del ghetto. Gli italiani, i campi nomadi e l’invenzione degli zingari,’ Civezzano: Nonluoghi libere edizioni, 2002.

25 Leonardo Piasere, ‘Che cos’è un campo nomadi?,’Achab, (8), 8-16, 2006.

26 Sabina Anderini and Anna Rita Racioppo, ‘I rom nella programmazione 2014-2020, Come tradurre le strategie dei Fondi strutturali in azioni concrete,’ Osservatorio Isfol, (1-2), 113-114, 2013.