Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Fingerprinting Gypsies: pro and against

The UK press have been unanimous in their condemnation of the Italian Government and their controversial programme to fingerprint all Gypsies in the country, including children. But is it true that it's a return to the old days of Mussolini? Is it that simple? Let's analyse the two sides of the argument.

- In favour.

This week, in Verona, eight Romany Gypsies were arrested for using children in hundreds of robberies. It emerged that they had been caught 123 times and used 93 different aliases. Now I ask you: is that normal?

The initial reflex may be a chilling one, especially when you read the headlines drawing comparisons between the Nazi persecution of sixty-five years ago and the current singling out of an ethnic group as part of a crackdown on crime. So is the birthplace of fascism at it again?

It is a fact that the British press absolutely love linking anything they can to the old Nazi/Fascist days, whether it's incest in Austria, the election of a right-wing Mayor in Rome or England taking on Germany at Euro 96.

Sixty-five years on and they seem disturbingly - perversely - fascinated. It's no surprise, therefore, that when the Italian government plans a census of the Gypsy population and the British papers answer with cries of "mass deportations, torture and death" (The Times, Saturday 5 July 2008), there are several logical steps missing.

So let's hear it out from the new Italian Government (of whom I'm no fan - at all) and the Red Cross.

I may be easily persuaded, but when I read their justification, I no longer felt a sense of unease. Here it is, plain and simple. Out of the estimated 152,000 Romany Gypsies who live in Italy, an (again) estimated 60% live without papers. Out of this 60%, their kids don’t go to school, they live in camps with horrendous levels of hygiene and are involved in all sorts of "activities" that allow them to "make a living", so to speak.

You just need to travel to Southern Europe, Italy and Spain for example, and have a look at the amount of Gypsies begging -baby in tow- or forcing their kids to do so. Take a look at those digging into rubbish bins, for good measure.

And if you class yourself an observant person, keep your eyes out in the Madrid metro, or Barcelona, Milan and Rome, and check out who's got the lion's share in pickpocketing. It may make you feel better to think of this as a generalisation (and yes, of course stealing and pickpocketing isn't the Gypsies' monopoly, nor did they invent it), but go check for yourself. And they're highly skilled, those kids. You see them hopping from carriage to carriage, nodding and winking at each other until they've identified a particularly careless prey, wallet dangling out of their pocket. It's not unusual to spot Gypsy kids, boys and girls, as young as six caught by helpless police at an underground platform. Helpless because, unless the offenders are identifiable, there's absolutely F.A. they can do. Who are these kids? Have they got a fixed abode? Why aren’t they at school? Who are their parents?

Although it is fair to say that not all Gypsies live and work illegally, it is simply intolerable to have such large numbers of people choosing to live outside the law. This week, in Verona, eight Romany Gypsies were arrested for using children in hundreds of robberies. It emerged that they had been caught 123 times and used 93 different aliases. Now I ask you: is that normal? The fact itself that the government can only estimate the tens of thousands who are in Italy and estimate the number who live in camps and estimate those who carry out illegal activities is a sign that a serious clampdown is needed.

Critics of the plan argue that the Italians can hardly claim their country was crime-free before Gypsies settled in such high numbers.

And it's true, but at least the authorities could reasonably keep track of offenders and re-offenders and organise their social services (i.e. custody, young offenders' institutes, rehabilitation packages, social security, council housing and the rest) accordingly. With such large numbers of people, many under 14, without a known identity or address, the authorities end up with their hands completely tied and their duty to protect the population all but a pointless exercise.

The idea of fingerprinting and photographing them may not instinctively be the most comfortable one - but is the alternative any better? And those who are crying out at the "Nazi methods": is it left-wing, instead to feel at ease when tens of thousands of kids are sent out by adults to rob and steal without any hope of an education and a better future?

- Against.

There is not a single example in history where the targeting of a single ethnic group, may the purpose be a clampdown on crime or social engineering, ended up free of wretched consequences.

Amnesty International, Unicef and the Catholic Church are only three of the many organisations who reacted in revulsion at Silvio Berlusconi's Government plan to fingerprint an entire ethnic group. People often forget that Romany Gypsies were persecuted (and killed) in the hundreds of thousands during the Holocaust.

Of course, this is not what the Italian Government has in mind. But when you blanket target a whole ethnic group for whatever governmental purpose, the implications are disturbing and drawing a line becomes increasingly difficult. There is not a single example in history where the targeting of a single ethnic group, may the purpose be a clampdown on crime or social engineering, ended up free of wretched consequences.

Mugging, pickpocketing and robbing didn’t start with the Gypsies. It was only until recently, for instance, that people from Northern Italy would complain of the alleged criminal inclination of their fellow compatriots from the South.

After all, hasn’t Naples got a reputation as the capital of pickpocketing? Didn’t those tourist guides warn you to keep your jewellery at home and avoid flashing your brand new camcorder when you wander round the old town's alleyways?

So, perhaps, if fingerprinting is intended to cut down street crime, the Government may record the entire population, whether they hold an Italian passport or not. Recent high-profile robberies featured people of Romanian, Albanian or Bulgarian citizenship. Are they planning to fingerprint them as well? Where does it stop? Why just the Gypsies?

Also, by legally sanctioning their "different status" (i.e. by saying that only certain ethnic categories are to be fingerprinted and/or photographed), the Government is running the risk of exposing Romany Gypsies to increasing episodes of hatred and xenophobia.

Not to mention the whiff of populism emerging from Silvio Berlusconi's Government. It is ironic that phone tapping made possible the recent arrest of a Romany Gypsy criminal gang. Berlusconi and his coalition government want to restrict police powers to listen in on potential criminals.

Never has the saying that "you should set your own house in order before preaching others" sounded more appropriate.

Berlusconi's disagreements with Italian magistrates are well-known and problems of corruption and organised crime that are so endemic in Italy could do with taking a priority over the anti-Gypsy crusade. Yet the Italian Government is passing the fingerprinting measure by "emergency decree", something usually reserved for natural catastrophes.


Tony Deegan said...

I lived in Barcelona for over 6 years, only recently returning to Ireland, and would like to point out one factual inaccuracy in this blog regarding pickpockets in that city. The author asks that we observe pickpockets on the metro, that these will be gypsies. Firstly, if you can see them working then they are rank amateurs - professional pickpockets work amongst us invisibly. I've written articles on crime in the city, and studied the streets for those articles. What I discovered, and had confirmed in my interviews with the Guardia Civil, is that pickpockets in the main are not going to stand out in any way. They dress as tourists or they dress as business people. They will look very trustworthy. Of course, you will get kids pickpocketing, and some of those kids will be gitanos. Some will be of North African extraction, and some will be locals from the less well-off suburbs. Most of the gypsies you see on the metros will be formidably armed with accordions, and work the carriages by playing music and passing around the hat.

Anonymous said...

And most of the gypsy women begging will carry a very small child in tow.