Far-right calls to register Roma ‘echoes’ Europe’s dark history

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On May 16, 1944, Nazi gunmen encircled a section of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland where some 6,000 Roma prisoners were held. They were preparing to send the inmates to the gas chambers.

But the prisoners had caught wind of their plans and armed themselves with pipes, sticks, stones and makeshift weapons cobbled together from scrap wood and sheet metal.

While many Roma were murdered that night, their resistance led to Nazi Germany delaying their executions for several months, according to survivors.

During the Holocaust, censuses were used to identify minority groups to send to camps where Jews, Roma and others were slaughtered.

Each year, the Romani Day of Resistance is marked in Europe on May 16 to commemorate the uprising in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Just over a month after this year’s remembrance, Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, dredged up dark memories when he proposed to register Romani communities in a census and deport those without Italian citizenship.

“Unfortunately we have to keep Italian Roma people in Italy because you can’t expel them,” said Salvini, who is a member of the far-right League (formerly the Northern League) and co-deputy prime minister.

“For Roma in Italy, this is nothing new,” Ian Hancock, a Romani scholar at the University of Texas, told Al Jazeera.

During the Holocaust, Romani people were among the groups targeted by German Nazi authorities and their allies for deportation, internment, forced labour and genocide.

The kind of language Salvini is using is certainly not out of the ordinary in Italy or indeed across Europe.

Jonathan Lee, European Roma Rights Centre spokesman

In addition to European Jewry, other victims included Slavs, differently-abled people, communists, members of the LGBTQ community and a swath of ethnic and religious minorities.

Between 1939 and 1945, estimates range between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of Roma killed in Germany and its occupied territories. 

Many died en route to the death camps, and others were murdered once there.

Matteo Salvini has called for a Roma register and rallied against refugees since becoming interior minister, often using his social media accounts to announce his position [File: Tony Gentile/Reuters]


In Italy, where the presence of Romani communities can be traced back to the 14th century, they were subjected to concentration camps and expulsions under Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime. 

The exact number of deaths is still a matter of academic investigation.

“They have been expelling [Roma] for a long time,” Hancock said, “and the first step in expulsion is identification.”

‘Smacks of neo-Nazism’

In his research, Hancock, who has authored dozens of books about Romani history, examines the plight of Roma before, during and after the Holocaust.

The idea of a register, which is not limited to Italy, “smacks of neo-Nazism”, he said, and “simply reinforces the notion that this is a population nobody wants”.

In early June, Carsten Hutter, a far-right politician with the nativist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, requested a census of Roma in the country’s Saxony region, according to Vice’s German-language website.

Roma under police surveillance march down Konigstrasse in Asperg, Germany, on May 22, 1940. They will be locked up in prison prior to deportation to camps in Poland [File: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images]

Jonathan Lee, communications officer at the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), argued that “a census of Roma echoes the politics of fascism, which preluded the horrors of the Holocaust”.

“The kind of language Salvini is using is certainly not out of the ordinary in Italy or indeed across Europe,” he told Al Jazeera.


“When you have politicians, who are sometimes the leaders of EU member states, using hate speech about Roma, it really says something about the level of acceptable racism which we face across the continent.”

Explaining that contemporary parallels to the 1930s “are plain for all to see”, Lee said “the rhetoric used by populist parties [employs] widespread anti-Gypsyism in society to translate to political gains at the ballot box”.

‘We’ve only existed in Europe’

Elena Risi of Associazione 21 Luglio, an Italy-based organisation that works with Roma, said Salvini’s call is similar to Roberto Maroni’s efforts to initiate a census in 2009, when he was interior minister.

Maroni is also a leader of the far-right League party.

Then, the Italian army and police carried out the project by finger-printing and photographing Roma, among them Italian citizens, stateless people and children in formal and informal settlements in several parts of the country.

A year earlier, Silvio Berlusconi, the right-wing prime minister, had evoked a “Roma emergency” as part of a supposed crackdown on crime, prompting outrage from rights groups and activists.

As a people, we’ve only existed in Europe. And where do you go if you don’t have a country? It’s as if you’re always trespassing in a way.

Ian Hancock, Romani scholar

Today, an estimated 120,000 to 160,000 Roma live in Italy, many of them in institutionally neglected settlements. They endure vigilante violence, a lack of resources and discrimination in housing and the public sector, according to rights groups.

In 2017, Associazione 21 Luglio documented 230 forced eviction operations targeting Roma communities. 

Last week, a Roma settlement in the capital was swept and cleared by police.

Roma in the the courtyard of Hohenasperg prison prior to deportation to a camp in Poland on May 22, 1940. Up to hundreds of thousands of Roma were killed in the Holocaust [Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images]

“This government is moving toward xenophobic and populist positions that could [spark a] rise violence against the most vulnerable people and violate fundamental human rights,” Risi told Al Jazeera.

Hancock, the Romani scholar, suspects that calls to register Roma are doomed to fail. 


“It’s very difficult to get an accurate census of any population, but especially Romanis, and the figures will always be lower than reality,” he said.

Still, he worries about the broader social impact of anti-Roma incitement. 

“As a people, we’ve only existed in Europe,” he said. “And where do you go if you don’t have a country? It’s as if you’re always trespassing in a way.”

Eva Justin of the Racial Hygiene Research Centre at the Reich Bureau for Health at the Reichsgesundheitsamt conducting interview with an old woman in 1938. Her research provided the pseudo-scientific basis for the extermination and forced sterilization of thousands of Sinti and Roma. After completion of the research, deportations to Poland started [File: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images]

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