Professor Isabella Clough on Anti-Roma Discrimination in Italy

John Cabot University students attended a lecture held by Professor Isabella Clough Marinaro concerning discrimination of the Roma community, both within Italy and worldwide. Sponsored by the Community Service Program, the event was entitled “Anti-Roma Discrimination in Italy:  Causes, Consequences, and Where to Go From Here.”

Isabella Clough Marinaro

Isabella Clough Marinaro

Professor Clough Marinaro has studied Roma communities and their segregation in Italy for the last twenty years. Her research builds upon empirical sociological analysis conducted through fieldwork, through which she has established networks of trust within these marginalized communities.

The purpose of this classroom experience was to raise awareness of the struggle these communities face, both at an individual and institutional level. Common knowledge about where they come from and who they are is generally inadequate, and ignorance on the matter often leads to fearmongering and discrimination. Since they are a community plagued by negative stereotypes, it has been difficult to integrate them within society, particularly in Italy. They live in a mold devised by external opinions that has cast them as dangerous, dirty, and dishonest. By the end of Professor Clough’s presentation, students began to understand why.

Historically, very little is known about the origins of the Roma people; most of their history was transmitted orally from one generation to the next. They likely originated in India approximately one thousand years ago; from there, they migrated all over the world. Many descendants of the early Roma completely assimilated into their host society and eventually disappeared. The ones alive today represent only a small fraction of early Roma communities.

The first Roma appeared in Italy around 600 years ago and were initially believed to be Egyptians due to their exotic appearance. Back then, those who travelled were met with fear and suspicion in equal measure. To leave one’s homeland in order to explore the great unknown was a daunting reality many never had the courage to face. Travelers could potentially bring foreign diseases, and were harder to track because of their mobility. If need be, they could steal and never get caught for it. This gave way to the common stereotype of Roma as elusive, untrustworthy harbingers of foreign diseases. Unfortunately, little has changed society’s attitude towards them.

As the European Union’s biggest ethnic minority, the Roma population is estimated at around 10- 12 million people. They are present in all 28 EU states and are considered an integral part of European civilization. Yet, there is widespread ignorance about their culture. According to a recent EU study, eighty percent of Roma live below the at-risk-of-poverty threshold of their country. A third of Roma people live without running water. They also have lower life expectancy rates compared to the EU average, as well as worse health conditions. Sixty-three percent of Roma between the ages of 16-24 are unemployed, whereas the EU average is 12%. Shockingly, they live in similar conditions to the slums one would find in developing countries- yet they live in Europe.

Roma Discrimination

“Shoots to say NO to discrimination – For Rom People” by Salvatore Sansone is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

At an institutional level, Roma face discrimination in a number of public sectors, such as schools and healthcare services. Many cannot afford medication, and they often do not have a family doctor. Roma children face microaggressions in the classroom and in some cases are separated from other students on the grounds of them having falsely diagnosed “learning disabilities.” Despite the presence of anti-discrimination laws, only 12% of Roma in member states studied actually report racial crimes to authorities. The vicious cycle that freezes Roma social mobility is a concatenation of certain key elements: poor, structurally weak housing leads to poor health, which affects education, which in turn creates a lesser likelihood of finding a job, leading to an inability to improve their lives, eventually placing them back to square one.

In Italy, it is believed that Roma communities have been around since 1422. Many assimilated into Italian culture and lost touch with their own, while others still hold tight to their age-old traditions. Italy is the only country in Europe that systematically segregates areas designated for Roma, akin to Native American reservations in North America. In fact, Italy is dubbed ‘camplands’ due to the high number of camps, which are packed with makeshift housing built from scrap material. Scrap houses like these do not have running water, gas, or electricity, and do not meet any housing law standards. Police routinely demolish these structures while leaving Roma families without any housing alternative.

There are special “villages” designed for Roma communities where families can live in structures fitted with running water and electricity. These camps are, however, located in the most isolated parts of the city, where the nearest signs of civilization are miles away. The extent of social exclusion and alienation has a significant knock-on effect on access to employment, jobs, and social life within these villages.

In the last few decades, the Italian government has placed some families in public housing. The government recognizes that housing is considered a core component of discrimination: to beat it, housing must be desegregated. Despite the Italian government’s efforts to do so, in some cities such as Rome, the public has pushed back with resistance and protest, claiming that Roma communities have no right to Italian public housing. The problem does not solve itself by arbitrarily placing Roma families in public apartments; all that does is aggravate social tension. The best solutions are based on education and raising awareness within the Italian non-Roma community as well as involving the Roma themselves in policy development.

(Alice Fowler)