March 20, 2011

I. Summary

In recent years in Italy, racism and xenophobia have boiled over into violence. Mob violence against Roma in Naples in May 2008 and attacks on seasonal migrant workers in Rosarno, a small town in the southern region of Calabria, in January 2010 made international headlines. A café owner bludgeoned to death Abdoul Guiebre, an Italian of Burkina Faso origin, on the street in Milan in September 2008 after a petty theft. Two men in a square in Naples assaulted Marco Beyene, an Italian of Eritrean origin, in March 2009, to shouts of “shitty nigger” (“negro di merda”). A group of 15 to 20 people attacked Bengalis in a bar in Rome in March 2010, injuring four people and damaging the property.

Hate crimes do not take place in a vacuum. In a country that has seen a dramatic increase in immigration, particularly over the past 10 years, a political discourse that links immigrants and Roma and Sinti (many of whom are Italian citizens) to crime has helped to create and perpetuate an environment of intolerance. Since 2008, the government of Silvio Berlusconi, in coalition with the openly anti-immigrant Northern League party, has adopted “emergency” decrees to facilitate strong-handed measures against undocumented migrants and Roma and Sinti; passed legislation to make undocumented entry and stay in Italy crimes; and attempted to impose harsher penalties for crimes committed by undocumented migrants than by citizens and legal residents. Berlusconi argued in January 2010 that “a reduction in [the number of] foreigners in Italy means fewer people to swell the ranks of criminals.” Elected officials across the political spectrum have engaged in anti-immigrant and anti-Roma rhetoric.

Media observers and representatives of anti-racism NGOs have become increasingly concerned about the negative portrayal of immigrants and minorities, including Roma and Sinti, in media reporting, and the impact of that reporting on public perceptions of those communities. A study conducted by Sapienza University of Rome during the first half of 2008 found that only 26 out of 5,684 television news stories about immigrants did not relate to crime or security issues – a statistic Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, called “stunning” following a March 2010 visit to Italy. Television is the main source of news for 80 percent of the Italian population.

A growing and pervasive racism affects every aspect of life, noted Chiara (pseudonym), an Italian woman in the Tor Bella Monaca district of Rome who has observed hatred and the potential for violence creep into her everyday routines. She told Human Rights Watch that other mothers complain to her, “I only see black, everyone’s African now.  They get a place for their kids in the local daycare center and I don’t.” A young man said to her, “Romanians have stealing in their DNA. I work with a Romanian, but at night, we’re enemies. If I see him, I beat him up.” Chiara was talking to a Moroccan friend on the bus when another passenger yelled at her, “If you talk to them, they’ll never leave!” A Romanian friend of hers bought himself a bicycle so he could avoid the regular insults that came with riding the bus. She said the guard at the supermarket told her daughter to stay close “because there were gypsies about who steal kids.”

International human rights law imposes clear obligations on states to undertake effective measures to prevent racist and xenophobic violence (the duty to protect), and to vigorously investigate and prosecute perpetrators (the duty to provide an effective remedy). Authorities should, in addition, publicly and unequivocally condemn such violence, in order to reiterate that the violence is unacceptable, and express support for those at risk. The duty to protect and the duty to provide an effective remedy apply whether the perpetrators of the violence are agents of the state or private actors.

Italian authorities are failing to live up to these obligations. In part, this reflects a failure to identify racist and xenophobic violence as a serious issue. Public authorities tend to minimize the extent of racist violence in Italy, calling such crimes episodic and rare, and the racist or xenophobic dimension of events—such as the targeted attacks on sub-Saharan African seasonal migrants, gangs that target immigrants for extortion and beatings, and attacks on Roma settlements—is often minimized or excluded. The Italian interior minister has repeatedly stated that Italy is not a racist country and referred to racist violence as “episodes … that … remain completely marginal and are rejected by society.” A representative of the local government of Tor Bella Monaca, the scene of numerous attacks on migrants over the past several years, told Human Rights Watch that these incidents “are not about racism, but rather a problem of cohabitation, of numbers.” The National Office against Racial Discrimination, a government body, only began tracking incidents of racist violence in September 2010.

The most important instrument in Italian criminal law to combat racist and xenophobic violence—a penalty enhancement scheme providing for an increase in prison sentences of up to one-half for perpetrators of crimes aggravated by racist motivation—has yet to live up to its promise. The restrictive wording of the statute, which speaks of racist or hate “purpose,” rather than “motivation,” and its failure to acknowledge explicitly the possibility of mixed motives, has given rise to narrow interpretations by the courts and limited applicability in practice. Crimes that may have had a bias motivation are frequently not registered, investigated, or prosecuted as such. While the approach of the courts appears to be evolving, Human Rights Watch research indicates that the aggravating circumstance provision is used effectively when racist animus appears to be the sole motivation for an assault, but the racist dimension of a crime is downplayed or ignored altogether when the alleged perpetrator(s) appear to have other, additional, motives.

Because racist and xenophobic violence is not considered a pressing issue, there is a lack of systematic specialized training for law enforcement personnel and prosecutors in racist and xenophobic violence. The director of the National Police Training Institute as well as the head of a major police officer union stressed that Italians were not “by nature” racist and that racist and xenophobic violence is not a statistically significant problem. Police officers do not receive specialized training in identifying and investigating racist and xenophobic violence. Similarly, there is no obligatory training for prosecutors with a specific, in-depth focus on bias crimes. 

Systematic collection of data on racist and xenophobic violence, and hate crimes generally, is critical to analyzing trends and ensuring an appropriate response. Yet Italy has only recently begun to collect any kind of data on hate crimes, and what exists is partial. The government does not publish statistics on hate crimes, though it can make data available upon request. Authorities point to the low numbers of official complaints and prosecutions for racially aggravated violence to argue that such violence is rare, without factoring in underreporting and failure by law enforcement and the judiciary to correctly identify such violence.

Undocumented migrants, including Roma from other European countries, are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to reporting racist and xenophobic violence. While a provision exists for granting victims of crimes special leave to stay in Italy, it is a discretionary power, and little known among migrants. Reporting a crime can also expose undocumented migrants to the risk of conviction for unlawful stay in Italy under the 2009 law making such stay a crime, with no guarantees that once any legal proceedings are concluded they will not be ordered to leave the country. As one South Asian man put it, “We’re foreigners here, it’s too dangerous to file a complaint.”

Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi famously said in 2009 that Italy should not become a multiethnic country. The reality is that Italy is already a mosaic of ethnicities, nationalities, and national origins, and is likely to become even more diverse in the years to come. Worrying signs already exist that increasing diversity has led to increasing intolerance, with some resorting to or choosing violence to express racist or xenophobic sentiments. The government must act now to arrest this trend.

Key Recommendations to the Italian Government

  • Consistently and forcefully condemn, at the highest level, racist and xenophobic violence.
  • Reform the Criminal Code to incorporate the aggravating circumstance of hate motivation into article 61, and ensure that such reform reformulates the scope of the aggravating circumstance to:
  • Allow for mixed motives and the application of the aggravating circumstances in cases where violence has been committed “in whole or in part” due to bias; and
  • Expand the list of protected characteristics in the provision to include, at a minimum, sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Ensure obligatory training for law enforcement personnel on detecting, responding to, and investigating crimes motivated wholly or in part by racial, ethnic, or xenophobic bias.
  • Ensure obligatory training for public prosecutors on relevant national legislation, in particular the aggravating circumstance of racial motivation.
  • Strengthen the National Office against Racial Discrimination (UNAR) to ensure it has the capacity to extend its national visibility and work, in particular on racist and xenophobic violence.


This report is based on research carried out between December 2009 and December 2010. Field interviews were conducted in Milan, Rome, Rosarno, Palermo, Catania, and Florence between December 2009 and July 2010. An Italian-speaking Human Rights Watch researcher conducted 29 interviews with people who had experienced or witnessed a physical attack attributable wholly or in part to racist or xenophobic sentiment, including undocumented migrants, seasonal agricultural workers, Italian citizens, long-term residents of foreign origins, and foreign and Italian Roma and Sinti.

Some of the interviews were conducted in a mix of French or English and Italian for the ease of the interviewee. Four interviews were facilitated by interpreters provided by the interviewees themselves. The majority of the interviews were conducted individually, although sometimes others (for example, the interviewee’s lawyer or friend or an NGO activist) were present and at times participated. The identities of some of those we interviewed have been withheld to protect their privacy and minimize the risk of negative consequences. We have not used testimony obtained from three victims and one witness due to concerns about identifying them.

Human Rights Watch spoke with 36 academics, lawyers, and representatives of NGOs and associations. We interviewed 19 government officials, including public prosecutors, law enforcement personnel, the director and a staff member of the National Office against Racial Discrimination, the director and a staff member of the National Police Training Institute, the deputy director and a staff member of the Legislative Office at the Ministry of Justice, as well as local government representatives in Milan, Rome, and Rosarno. We had an off-the-record meeting with the Interior Ministry. Our repeated requests for statistics from the Interior Ministry received no response. Our request to meet with the commander of the Rome municipal police was denied, and our request to meet with the Milan municipal police received no response.