MILAN, ITALY — On the heels of controversial Roma Gypsy expulsions in France, which may lead to European Union sanctions, cities across Italy have increased pressure on Romas, recently tearing down more camps and driving them out of town. But while France is risking EU punishment, Italy may avoid legal action since the expulsions are being carried out at the municipal level, which does not violate any EU regulation since there is no formal expulsion.
In Milan, for instance, where local authorities have been evacuating Roma Gypsy camps for years, upcoming mayoral elections appear to have renewed officials’ interest in going after Roma Gypsy communities – a move that is widely popular throughout Italy.
“The strategy is clear and simple: Rather than forcing someone on the airplane, authorities keep demolishing gypsy camps so that eventually Roma people have no place to go and leave the country,” says Roberto Malini, a representative from EveryOne, an nongovernmental organization that defends minorities’ rights in Italy.
Other than Milan, camps have been evacuated in Rome, Naples, and now Italy is talking about evacuating camps near Venice.
In 2006 there were at least 170,000 Roma in Italy, now there are just about 40,000, according to Mr. Malini, who claims that many of the gypsies that are now being expelled from France were previously forced out of Italy: “I had at least 15 of them calling me on the phone asking me what to do.”
“In a sense, Italy has anticipated the French trend in cracking down on Roma,” points out Maurizio Paganini, leader of the Opera Nomadi gypsy organization.
Mr. Paganini says that dozens of Roma camps have been destroyed all over the country in the past two years. In 2008 the government introduced a controversial “gypsy census” taking files of the inhabitants of the major Roma camps in the country.
Taking the crackdown to new proportions
“But this whole crackdown has recently been taking new proportions in the area of Milan,” continues Paganini. This week in the Milan area, three Gypsy camps have been evacuated: a major one in the Treboniano northern neighborhood, and two minor ones in Rizzo street and Toledo street.
“We have kicked out 150 squatters in 24 hours and have evacuated 355 people since 2007,” deputy mayor Riccardo De Corato proudly declared to Asca news agency. He was recently quoted by The Washington Post as describing Gypsies as “dark-skinned people, not Europeans like you and me,” and as having declared: “Our final goal is to have zero gypsy camps in Milan.”
Paganini, the Gypsy leader, says that the recent acceleration in the crackdown against Roma is politically motivated: “We are getting close to the  mayoral elections and authorities want to impress the public with a policy of zero tolerance.”
Gypsies as the public enemy
Paganini says that the ruling conservative party has “successfully turned Gypsies into a public enemy.”
The policy is no doubt popular.
According to a 2008 survey taken by Roberto Mannehimer group, 81 percent of the Italian population “cannot stand Gypsies,” who are often blamed for petty crimes.
Since then, the conservative parties’ rhetoric against Roma has grown stronger. “Many of them are criminals,” Vice Mayor De Corato, who belongs to prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Freedom Party, told the Post.
“The problem is that the progressive opposition [parties have] no alternative plan,” points out Paganini, who says left-wing parties blame themselves for having lost the elections for being too soft on crime and so-called dangerous minorities. “There is no alternative narrative … the Gypsies are always the bad guys.”