The Italian government, which scaled back a crackdown on illegal immigration and other security measures after critics alleged they were too heavy-handed, now faces accusations that its security efforts aren’t even working after brutal attacks on four tourists.
Silvio Berlusconi’s Rightist government, elected in April on a platform of making the country safer, encountered roadblocks as it tried to implement its security program, including declaring a state of emergency on illegal immigration, assigning soldiers to patrol sensitive areas, and having traffic police carry guns.
During the summer, the measures drew accusations of heavy-handedness and xenophobia from human rights groups, the European Union, and the Catholic Church. Others also voiced concern about possible resurgent fascism in Italy.
In response, the government moderated some plans: The effort to fingerprint all of Italy’s estimated 150,000 gypsies, including children, was trimmed to only some cities because of allegations that it was discriminatory. A law forbidding street begging and rummaging through garbage bins also was scrapped.
But opposition leaders are citing the vicious assaults on two Dutch and two German tourists in Rome and Naples last week as proof that Berlusconi’s security policies are not working.
Rome’s mayor, Gianni Alemanno, a former neo-fascist, sparked controversy with the contention that the Dutch tourists carelessly pitched their tents close to gypsy camps on the outskirts of the city. He has since vowed to reduce the number of camps and monitor all gypsies and homeless people.
Despite criticisms against the government, most Italians back the security clampdown, and Berlusconi has a 55 percent approval rating in polls — the highest of any European leader. His supporters argue that most crimes are committed by foreigners, unemployed immigrants or gypsies in particular, and that tackling the issue is in everyone’s interest.
The government believes that a nationwide census will cut crime, stop children from being used for begging or theft, and help identify illegal immigrants for expulsion. Roman gypsies protest that not all of them are criminals and feel they have been blamed unfairly since a Romanian immigrant brutally killed a navy officer’s wife last year.
Still, few deny that something must be done. The Sant’ Egidio Catholic lay community, which has cared for gypsies since the late 1970s, supports a census but is concerned that society is judging the poor instead of showing them mercy and compassion. Others accuse Italians of having too much faith in the government’s ability to solve such problems at the expense of individual and community initiatives.
Vatican officials voice private concerns about possible rising xenophobia. Without specifically referring to Italy, Pope Benedict XVI called last week for an end to racism in favor of building a society based on justice and peace. The government’s critics interpreted the comments as an endorsement of their criticisms.
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