The red light blinks on and the camera is ready to film the fight. A horde of men circle the two fighters, an Irish traveler and a Romani gypsy. The crowd screams obscenities as the traditional Romani bare-knuckles fight gets bloody, the smell of rust filling the slum air.
The Italian high court excused all Italian citizens who took part in the arson claiming, “it is acceptable to discriminate against Roma on the grounds that they are thieves.”
Foreigners pay for the thrill of a fist fight while traveling, but fighting is the only way some Romani can support themselves. Soon the traveler wins, spits an insult at the back of the Romani man and saunters off. The gash covered Romani limps away with enough cash to be worth the bruises.
The Romani people, more commonly referred to as gypsies, are not strangers to discrimination, insult and the fight for survival. Their dark history includes being enslaved for centuries, banned to practice their culture and being targeted for extermination during the Holocaust.. Today antiziganism lives on globally but is particularly concentrated in Italy.
Of all the European countries, the Romani people are perhaps most strongly persecuted in Italy. The history between the two people groups is full of violence and blood. The tension was between Italy and the Romani people can act as a case study for a larger regional problem.
Most recently in the feud between Italy and the Romani people, individual Romani persons have been convicted of crimes. In 2007, an Italian police raid uncovered a group of children who were locked in a shed by Romani gang members. Much like the movie Slumdog Millionaire the children children were forced to steal during the day and bring home their plunder at night to the gang.
This disturbing injustice was soon followed by the brutal rape and murder of an Italian woman in Rome. Her aggressor was a Romani man, whose actions caused Italy to address the Romani population within their borders. The Italian government declared a emergenza nomadi (nomad emergency), claiming the Romani people’s presence in their country had caused crime rate to increase.
The Romani people are not always the aggressors in tense situations between the two parties. Following the emergenza nomadi in 2008, two Romani children drowned in Naples, Italy while local Italians looked on and took pictures of their dead bodies.
Just weeks previous to the drowning incident, local Italians attacked and set fire to Romani villages in Naples. The Italian high court excused all Italian citizens who took part in the arson claiming, “it is acceptable to discriminate against Roma on the grounds that they are thieves.”
This quote is only a glimpse of what kind of discrimination the Romani people face in Italy. Compounding on top of racism, the Romani people face extraordinary unemployment rates and extreme poverty.
2012 World Bank and European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights survey found an astounding 72 percent of Romani people are unemployed. Unemployment may be higher amongst Romani individuals because of potential screening done by employers and countries. Italy, along with 12 EU countries, require work permits and special labor laws based on an individual’s country of origin.
The European Union Your Europe website states. “As an EU national, you’re entitled to work — for an employer or as a self-employed person — in any EU country without needing a work permit. Exception — Bulgarian, Romanian and Croatian nationals still face temporary restrictions on working in the EU.” EU’s emphasis
The same World Bank survey found “90 % [of Romani people] are living below national poverty lines” throughout the EU, making them the lowest socioeconomic class in the EU.
In the face of extreme racism, poverty and discrimination there is still hope. Opera Nomadi is the oldest and largest non-Romani organization in Italy that works helps this ostracized people group. Founded in 1963, this “non-confessional, non-political and non-profit organization” works at the local and national levels with policy makers to combat the discrimination against the Romani people.
Based out of Milan, Opera Nomadi is fighting for the rights of Romani people in Italy. Other European-based organizations, such as the Romanian Federation or La Voix de Roms operate on a smaller scale, focusing on local issues. Various NGO’s aid the 12 million Romani people who live in Europe. The vast majority of the Romani live in impoverished conditions.
While many NGO’s are working in Italy and throughout the EU, the Romani people still face discrimination and increasing racism that is seldom punished. The European Union is currently seeking policy adjustments that will more effectively protect the Romani people. An upcoming European Council meeting on policy will be held in March of 2014 in Brussels, Belgium.