The “Romanian issue” in Italy

Writing about the current state of things in Italy is no easy task. At the very least, the risk is not being taken seriously. Indeed, it is certainly difficult for people from other countries to believe how things work (or not) here.
Writing about Italy is also difficult because the events that led to the current situation are numerous, convoluted and – frankly – somewhat ironic.

For the sake of simplification, whenever I say “Italians” I mean Italian citizens of Italian origins living in Italy.

For a long series of reasons that I am going to talk about in subsequent posts on this blog, Italians have developed a strong sense of racism. Such feelings are widespread and have an ancestral vibe, as if they were an instinct. It is indeed curious, to say the least, that although Italians are divided upon pretty much everything and are often taking out xenophobic feelings against one another, they seem to be united against the “invader”.

Italians have always needed a scapegoat, and what makes a better scapegoat than “the foreigner?”
This can be easily noticed, as there are remnants of rivalry between nearby cities that often results in senseless hatred. Football (soccer) is frequently used as a catalyst and an excuse to let all of this out, with clashes – at times resulting in casualties – being extremely frequent.

One may wonder how dwellers of a nearby town can be considered “foreigners.” A peek at the history of the country reveals that Italy is a very young country: unification was only achieved in the 1860s, and the borders kept changing until the end of World War II (see here).
Before that, the Italian peninsula was sparkling with states of varying size, with unsteady borders and a huge ego. War was routinely waged, and the frequent foreign invasions did not help the matter; some historians claim that Italy’s internal instability made the states an easy prey for foreign dominators.

After the unification of Italy, the King was based in the north-west region Piemonte because, at this point, Rome still belonged to the Papal State, and ultimately had to be seized with a military operation that took a decade to organize. Geopolitically, in any case, the situation was desperate at best: as some patriots put it, Italy was made… but Italians were yet to be made. It took the Great War to sparkle some sense of nationalism in the majority of people, and it took the spread of television in the 1960s to join the different dialects that were spoken into a superset that might be considered a national language. I will talk about this specific topic in another post.

After World War II, which brought its own share of racism and xenophobia, Italy came full circle several times: the late 1940s were difficult, as the war had left behind severe damages; the 50s and the 60s brought an economic “boom”; the 70s saw the rise of political terrorism (“Years of Lead”) and an economic catastrophe (austerity); the 80s were generally positive; the 90s were welcomed by mafia terrorist attacks against judges and by Tangentopoli, an extensive network of bribery that effectively tore down the political class of the time.

The need for a scapegoat reached ridiculous new levels in the mid-90s, when a political movement born in the industrial North – called Lega Nord (North League) – began to seek the secession of the north-most regions (collectively called “Padania”). As a demonstration of their determination, they publicly burned the Italian flag in spite. However, as years went by and the political situation changed with the rise of Silvio Berlusconi, they lowered their claims and swiftly moved to seek some sort federalism that would give every region broader autonomy.
The concept of Padania is, however, still cherished. The Lega Nord developed a “national” color (green), a “national” flag (a green stylized encircled sun on a white background), a “national” anthem (the “Va’ Pensiero” chorus, from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco). Only the informal parliament in Mantua has been dropped.
Many members of the party still currently sit in the Italian Parliament, earning a conspicuous paycheck and enjoying remarkable benefits. At the same time, though, these people express their dislike for the country by saying “Roma ladrona”: Rome, they claim, is a “big thief” because most of the countries wealth comes from the north, and such wealth should not be shared with less industrious areas.

Such a concept has a strong grip on public opinion: as we have seen, Italians have always been in need of a scapegoat. This has led to a race to the gain an ever more instinctive pleasure from finding such scapegoats and keep going at them, to prove one’s strength.
Understanding, cooperation and reason have been pushed out of the picture; all that matters is paving the way for one’s own needs, even at cost of inconsistency. In the middle of the secession dream, Umberto Bossi kept calling Silvio Berlusconi a mafioso. Nowadays, as has already been said, the Lega Nord is one of the main political allies of Berlusconi’s PDL.
The tension between Padania and the rest of Italy has also subsided, only to be replaced with strong xenophobia. This strategy again proved to be proficuous, especially as the sense of safety, legality and ultimately honesty went downhill.

While Italians’ general feeling about immigration is negative – something that is fairly ironic by itself, given the countless numbers of Italian migrants scattered throughout the world –, whole populations have been routinely used as scapegoats; thanks to the powerful control over the media system by Berlusconi and his family and friends (more on that in subsequent posts), spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt is a trivial task.

In different moments, different ethnic groups have been labeled as criminals. The general perception has shifted from a member of a foreign ethnic group committing felonies to the whole foreign ethnic group being dedicated exclusively to felonies. This might seem impossible to most non-Italians , but reading the news here has always been dedicated to who person X, citizen of country Y, has done this or that. That, coupled with the aforementioned fear and dislike of anything foreign, does the rest.
That is how Kosovars were considered a plague just before the turn of the century, only to be replaced by Albanians a few years later. The innate disdain for strangers was crystallized by the word “albanese” beginning to be used as an insult, to imply dishonesty.

More recently, the focus has shifted to – albeit perchance a better word would be “against” – Romanians. This requires, once again, a short historical premise.
Several western European countries have been the destination of the Romani, an ethnic group whose history has been characterized by a long-standing diaspora. Their presence has been constant, but their culture is usually much different than that of the countries they settle in. They often congregate in squatter communities and in some cases actively refuse integration. This, coupled with a higher crime rate and traditions such as having children marrying other children, has made natives uneasy about them.
Legends started to circulate: it is said that they steal children from natives to sell them, and that they mark houses with signs that only they know, to tell other Romani whether it is a good objective or not. As clearly impossible some of these claims are – why would any thief share such information with other thieves? – it is not uncommon for youths to believe them.
Moreover, albeit the Roma traditions might be questionable by “westerners”, that alone does not make all of the Roma criminals.

Romani (or Roma; simply “Rom” in Italian) is not synonym of “Romanian”, though. It is true that Romania is home to a wide Roma community, but this does not make any Romanian a member of the Roma group. This is a very important point and it bears repeating: the Roma have “unusual” traditions and urban legends have been circulating about the Roma for decades. The Roma are not Romanians and Romanians and not necessarily Roma, albeit Roma might be Romanian citizen.
Such a distinction, however, is supposedly too complex for Italians to handle. A simplification is allegedly needed, and the general perception at this point is that Romanians “steal” children (not kidnap – the word used is “stealing”), rape women, mark houses and simply commit all sorts of felonies.
It doesn’t take much to start a witch hunt in Italy and that is exactly what has been going on, fueled by both the economic crisis (which triggers the usual mantra: “they steal jobs from natives”) and some unfortunate events such as rapes.

In May 2008, an Italian woman from Naples claimed that a Romanian (Roma? it was never clarified) 16-year-old girl had attempted to “steal” her six-month-old daughter. The baby’s mother and grandfather screamed and caught the attention of neighbors, who stopped the girl and let the police seize her. The girl was then jailed, albeit only upon the mother’s accusation. Considering how often actual proofs are dismissed, it is somewhat curious how a single accusation can send anyone to jail. Moreover, the probatory reconstruction is flaky at best: the mother changed her version several times, and many people who witnessed the trial shared the impression that someone innocent had just been convicted.
However, the alleged kidnapping of the baby triggered an extremely violent reaction. Several “campi Rom” around Naples, squatting communities where the Roma gather, have been literally attacked by angry Italians. Some of them have been set on fire, threatening the life of many people. Even though many photos clearly show the faces of those who participated to the raid, nobody was indicted.

Hatred against Romanians – or Roma, not that it matters anymore – has been escalating since then, with Romanians being blamed for most crimes that take place in Italy, especially rapes. It is very common for crimes committed by foreigners to stay in the headlines for days, clearly stating the country of origin. It is also very common to pinpoint that the victim is Italian.
Immigrates, on the other hand, have been the victims of racism in a very concrete way: for instance, in February an Indian man has been burned alive by three Italian minors in the outskirts of Rome.

To fight this, the Italian government has essentially gave in and is currently working to legalize “citizens’ patrols”: groups of private citizens, upon authorization, will be able to gather on patrols to allegedly prevent felonies from happening. How groups of untrained and hopefully unarmed people shall fight crime is left to be seen, but many (yours truly included) are afraid that such a thing will simply lead to more legalized violent outbursts of xenophobia and racism.

In the meantime, Romanian newspaper Gazeta Românească published an interesting front page on March 7th. Here is a translation of the leading article, written by the director of the publication.

We conducted an experiment: we slammed the Italian monster on the front page. It will show the perverse mechanism used by some Italian newspaper, that ultimately generates the [Italian] citizens’ rebellion against a whole people.
Once, just once, we are going to build a front page using the same style as the Italian press. These are real facts, however they have been scrupulously picked out of reality. The perception of Italians is filtered through the same lens that they look at us with every day: the crime news dedicated to those who kill, rape and steal.
News items, as journalism schools teach, is as relevant as itself. That is why crime news are usually printed on the last few pages of newspapers, as their meaning is almost zero. If a Romanian rapist assaults an Italian woman, that does not mean that “Romanians rape Italian women”; for the same reason, an Italian who abuses a Romanian child does not represent the “Italians who rape Romanian children.”
We encountered some difficulties in obtaining the [Italian] suspects’ names and photographs, because the Italian press did not pay importance to them. Most [Italian] newspapers does not provide the names of Italian suspects: at most they provide the initials, and photographs are even rarer. That is a correct practice, given the presumption of innocence that should be granted to anybody, in a democratic and modern state, no matter how disgusting the crime might be.
With Romanians, however, the opposite happens. They are filmed live, slammed on TV, already condemned by the press. The manipulation of public opinion has become coarse and is generally harmful.
A front page can be built in many ways. This is the worst.

Please note that this is my translation of an Italian translation of the original (and, I suppose, longer) article in Romanian, which follows:

O dată, o singură dată încercăm să facem o primă pagină în stilul de-acum consacrat al presei italiene. Italianul pedofil care violează un copil român, italianul beat şi drogat la volan care ucide un român şi fuge de la locul accidentului, italianca hoaţă capturată de doi români de bine. Toate fapte reale, dar extrase cu penseta din realitate. Imaginea italienilor într-o oglindă răsturnată în care ne reflectă zilnic: cronica neagră a italienilor care ucid, violează şi fură. Faptul divers, se învaţă la jurnalism, este închis în el însuşi, se întâmplă ceva şi gata. Nu mai continuă nimic. De aceea paginile de cronică neagră sunt deobicei la coada publicaţiilor, pentru că semnificaţia lor este zero. Dacă un violator român agresează o italiancă, nu înseamnă că “românii le violează pe italience”, aşa cum nici italanul pedofil care abuzează de un copil român nu reprezintă “italienii care violează copiii români”. Am avut probleme în a găsi însă numele autorilor şi fotografiile lor, pentru că presa italiană nu le-a dat importanţă. Majoritatea publicaţiilor trec sub tăcere numele arestaţilor, eventual se dau inişialele numelui, iar fotografiile sunt o raritate. O practică foarte corectă, având în vedere prezumţia de nevinovăţie de care beneficiază oricine, într-un stat democratic şi modern, indiferent de cât de odioasă este fapta de care este acuzat. Este vorba de presupuşi făptuitori, până când Justiţia îşi va spune cuvântul printr-o sentinţă de gradul trei.
Cu românii, am văzut, lucrurile sunt pe dos. Sunt filmaţi în direct şi “trântiţi” în prima pagină, în prim plan, condamnaţi deja de presă. Ce te faci atunci dacă Adn-ul violatorilor nu corespunde? Oricât de urâte ar avea feţele cei arestaţi, în orice haznale ale realităţii ar trăi, în condiţii de extremă promiscuitate, au dreptul să fie judecaţi pe baza unor probe, nu pe baza unor sentimente de moment, sau mai rău, pe baza etniei sau naţionalităţii. Manipularea opiniei publice a devenit grosolană şi este dăunătoare, dar din păcate nu e numai atât. Atitudinea justiţiei italiene are dublă măsură faţă de aceeaşi faptă. Daniel Dan Şerban, românul beat care a dat cu maşina peste un italian şi l-a ucis, a scăpat de linşajul unei mulţimi furioase şi a ajuns la închisoare. Italianul Valentino Gavetta, beat şi drogat la volan, a ucis cu maşina un român, dar n-a stat nici 5 minute după gratii, ba chiar dă interviuri în presă încercând să impună o versiune a faptelor. Prima pagină poate fi făcută în multe feluri. Acesta este cel mai greşit mod.

This was triggered by the umpteenth incident of this kind: last week, an young Italian woman was raped. She recognized two Romanians as her rapists, and the two men were quickly imprisoned. Forensic investigation quickly proved that the DNA traces found on the victim did not match and effectively cleared the suspects, but prosecutors refused to release the two men.
Should that have happened to Italians abroad, a riot would have bursted immediately. Instead, they are kept in because they might “help the actual criminals escape”. Incidentally, prosecutors are claiming that the felony might have been committed by two Albanians. The line of investigation is very simple: the victim claimed that the rapists spoke Italian with a strong Eastern-European accent.

History, it seems, is like a broken record.

(If you enjoyed this article, please share, subscribe and possibly leave a comment. My schedule is busy, but if you are interested in knowing more about what Italy is really like, I will reserve some time to write.)


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