March 20, 2011

II. Background

Help … I’m becoming racist
—Letter published in La Repubblica newspaper, May 2007[1]

Italians and outside observers have become increasingly concerned about racism and xenophobia in Italy in recent years. Italian anti-racism groups and international human rights authorities detect a momentum towards intolerance, reflected by politicians’ use of hateful speech as well as by violence against vulnerable groups. Political discourse that links immigrants and Roma and Sinti to crime has also helped create a climate in which intolerance can flourish.

A country with a long history of emigration—an estimated 24 million Italians emigrated abroad between 1876 and 1976—Italy has become over the past 30 years a country of immigration, and the last 10 years have seen a particular increase. According to the 2010 Caritas Statistical Dossier on Immigration—an authoritative yearly report by the Catholic Church—nearly 5 million immigrants live legally in Italy (around 8 percent of the overall population).[2]  Caritas estimates that 1 million irregular immigrants live and work in Italy. In 1998, Caritas reported that 1.2 million foreigners had residence permits in Italy, or 2.2 percent of the overall population.[3]

Among registered immigrants, one quarter are from countries within the European Union (EU), while half are characterized by Caritas as “European.”  Romanians account for the single largest national group (887,800), while Albanians (466,700), Moroccans (431,500), Chinese (188,000), and Ukrainians (174,000) form the next largest national groups.[4]  Immigration is changing the face of Italy: one out of eight newborns in Italy is the child of immigrants, and one out of fourteen students in Italian schools is of immigrant origin.[5] Nearly 40,000 foreigners acquired Italian citizenship in 2008, and there were over 220,000 registered marriages between Italians and foreigners between 1995 and 2007.[6]

Immigration issues have become a dominant feature of Italian politics and election campaigns. Successive governments have implemented diverse immigration policies, including periodic amnesties for undocumented migrants, but the prevailing approach over the past several years has been to frame immigration as a public order concern. The Northern League political party (Lega Nord), which emerged in the early 1990s, has made anti-immigration policies a central plank of its political platform.

Jean-Léonard Touadi, the first black deputy in the lower house of the Italian parliament, describes three phases to what he calls the country’s “slow approach to racism.” The first, he argues, begins in 1991 with an influx of Albanian immigrants:

The immigration phenomenon began that summer, and Italy began to feel invaded. The numbers were low, but an invasion syndrome was cultivated. And then came the economic crisis, and the advent of the Northern League. Berlusconi comes on to the scene in 1994, and transforms immigration issues into campaign material ... And crimes committed by immigrants are emphasized.[7]

The September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States constitute the beginning of the second phase, in which according to Touadi, “Muslims are associated with violence and considered the enemy of Italy’s Christian identity. The Lega [Nord] is a protagonist [in this phase], but important social exponents participate, including Cardinals, journalists, and politicians.”

The third and current phase is what Touadi describes as the security syndrome, in which a “clear link is drawn between immigration and crime, and social problems are confused with problems of public order.”[8]

According to a 2008 survey conducted by an academic research center, 60 percent of Italians believe that immigrants pose a security threat.[9]  Yet national studies by the Central Bank of Italy in 2008 and the National Economic and Labor Council in 2010 indicate that immigration has not had a significant impact on levels of crime in Italy.[10] A February 2010 Caritas study focused on Rome reached similar conclusions.[11]

Noureddine Chemmaoui, a member of the governing council of the Union of Islamic Communities of Italy (UCOII), expressed concern over anti-Muslim sentiment in Italy and racism more generally, saying, “We are worried that racism is becoming more rooted, that the people embrace these ideas. We are worried for our children, who are Italian, but who could become second-class citizens.”[12]

Immigration dynamics—and the politics of immigration and security—have also accentuated discrimination against Roma and Sinti, long a marginalized and unrecognized minority in Italy. An estimated 50 percent of Roma living in Italy are Italian citizens. Significant numbers of Roma came to Italy from the former Yugoslavia in the 1980s and 1990s, and the emigration of Roma from Romania has increased in recent years, particularly following Romania’s entrance into the EU in 2007. Though the distinction is often lost in public discourse, many Romanians living in Italy are not Roma.

In the campaign leading up to the April 2008 national elections, which brought Prime Minister Berlusconi back to power for the fourth time, Berlusconi’s party Popolo della Libertà, with its lynchpin coalition party the Northern League, focused largely on issues of security and immigration. Since 2008, national and local officials within or aligned with the governing coalition have consistently linked immigrants and Roma and Sinti with crime, and addressed immigration issues through the prism of security. Italy’s political left, which suffered significant losses in the 2008 elections, has been unable or unwilling to effectively counter this trend; in some cases, exponents on the political left have embraced the security paradigm in an effort to recapture support.

The Berlusconi government quickly adopted several emergency decrees with immediate application (some of which were subsequently submitted to parliamentary review and modification) targeting Roma and Sinti as well as migrants.

In May 2008, a week after the alleged kidnapping attempt of a child by a Romanian Roma teenager and retaliatory violent attacks on Roma camps in southern Italy, the government declared a state of emergency for “nomad communities” (code for Roma and Sinti) in the Campania, Lazio, and Lombardy regions, linking the presence of “nomads” to a “situation of serious social alarm with potentially serious consequences for public order and security for the local populations.” [13] Implementing orders adopted soon after gave local authorities special powers, including the rights to conduct censuses and to raid and dismantle informal Roma settlements. [14] Police raids followed.

The government also launched a crackdown on undocumented migrants. Following a heated political debate and opposition by national human rights groups and the Catholic Church, parliament adopted Law 94/2009, known as the “security package,” in July 2009. [15] Whereas migrants had been consistently depicted as authors of crimes, the criminal code was reformed to make it a crime to be an undocumented migrant, with undocumented entry into and stay in Italy now criminal offenses punishable by a fine of up to 10,000 (U.S.$13,712). Under the law, migrants on employment-based residence permits now lose their right to stay legally in Italy if they have not found new employment within six months. [16]

The government had in 2008 already made an undocumented stay in Italy an aggravating circumstance for the purposes of sentencing following a criminal conviction. Undocumented migrants could be subject to prison sentences of up to one-third longer than citizens and legal residents convicted for the same crime. The Constitutional Court ruled in July 2010 that this provision violated the constitutional principle of equality before the law, leading to its immediate annulment. [17]

The government’s willingness to set aside human rights to advance populist anti-migrant policies is also manifest by its migration cooperation with Libya. In May 2009, the government began unilaterally interdicting boat migrants on the high seas and returning them summarily to Libya, with no screening to identify refugees, the sick or injured, pregnant women, unaccompanied children, victims of trafficking, or others in need to assistance, in breach of human rights and refugee law. [18] All those forced back to Libya were detained upon arrival. A week later, Libya and Italy announced the beginning of joint naval patrols in Libyan territorial waters. Despite widespread international criticism, the Italian government has steadfastly defended its policy, saying the push-backs are in conformity with international law and cooperation with Libya is based on an “optimal agreement that has solved a serious emergency.” [19]

The Scale of the Problem

The true extent of racist and xenophobic violence in Italy is unknown. Italy has only recently begun to collect any kind of data on hate crimes, and the existing data appears to be partial. A crime is categorized in the database as racially aggravated only if the police officer receiving the complaint classifies it as such, and to date, Interior Ministry and Justice Ministry data have not been integrated to allow for tracking the outcome of individual complaints. [20] A representative of the statistical analysis division of the Central Directorate of Criminal Police, explained that a new integrated system, across ministries and law enforcement agencies, should be up and running in early 2011. [21]

Law enforcement crime reports do not record the victim’s ethnicity, race, or religion; statistics drawn from the Interior Ministry’s centralized database can therefore not be disaggregated by particular vulnerable groups (for example, Roma or Muslims).[22]  

The Interior Ministry does not publish hate crime data, though it has a policy of providing statistics upon request. Italy reported 147 hate crimes to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2007, 112 hate crimes in 2008 and 142 hate crimes in 2009.[23] The 2008 incidents included 14 assaults and 15 instances of graffiti.[24] It is unclear what the other crimes were.

The Ministry of Interior did not respond to repeated requests from Human Rights Watch for detailed statistics on official complaints, arrests, and prosecutions of racist and xenophobic crimes for the period 2007 to 2009. [25] At the time of writing, a further request for data from the Central Directorate of Criminal Police (Criminal Analysis Service) was pending. [26]

Media stories about racist crime help to provide a fuller picture. Lunaria, an anti-racism NGO, compiled statistics on reports of racist and xenophobic crimes in the media between January 1, 2007 and July 14, 2009. During this period, 398 crimes were reported in the press, of which 186 involved physical violence against people, including 18 incidents that led to the death of the victim, 173 involved verbal violence, and 39 involved attacks against property. Immigrants and refugees were the most frequent victims, followed by Roma. The vast majority of incidents were committed by ordinary citizens or unknown persons, while a minority were attributed to representatives of public authority, including law enforcement personnel.[27] 

The Impact of the Media

Despite the positive role of the media in drawing attention to racist crimes in the absence of systematic official reporting, there is growing concern among media observers and anti-racism NGOs over the negative portrayal of immigrants and minorities, including Roma, in media reporting, and the impact of that reporting on public perceptions of those communities.

This concern is linked to the monopolization of editorial influence in the broadcast media. Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi owns the largest private television company, Mediaset, and as prime minister, wields considerable editorial influence over the three channels of public television, known collectively by the acronym RAI. Italy was the only country in “Western Europe” besides Turkey to receive a Freedom House rating of “partly free” in its 2010 Freedom of the Press Index[28] and Italy ranked among the worst in the European Union in the 2010 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, in large part due to concerns about concentration of media ownership and interference with the media by political figures.[29]  Media observers and political scientists argue that this monopoly influences the nature and amount of media coverage devoted to linking criminality and immigration, particularly during election campaigns.[30] 

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. Television is the main source of news for 80 percent of the Italian population. The study, which analyzed seven evening television news programs and seven newspapers, concluded that the media presents a virtually one-dimensional image of immigrants in Italy: a male (almost 80 percent of the time) criminal whose personality “is reduced to a detail about nationality or ‘ethnic’ origin, often mentioned in the headline of the news item.”[31]  It continues:

What dominates above all is the label of illegal, which, above all other terms, defines immigration as such. Roma and Romanians are the ethnic group and nationality most often mentioned in television news headlines. In newspaper headlines, immigration issues appear even more linked to the legal status of the immigrant and to episodes of violent crime. Thus, words contribute to the characterization of the presence of immigrants in Italy by a strong reference to the threat foreigners pose to the safety of Italians. [32]

The effect was described to Human Rights Watch by a Senegalese immigrant in Catania, Sicily:

The situation has gotten much, much, much worse these last few years. Before, it was easier to find work, then TV and newspapers scared the Italian people. When they [Italians] see you’re a foreigner, they look at you, you can see they’re scared; maybe they cross to the other side of the street. [33]

Sensationalist and precipitous reporting on violent crimes attributed to immigrants or Roma may have played a role in provoking retaliatory mob violence against members of these groups. The rape and murder of Giovanna Reggiani, a 47-year-old woman, by a young Romanian man in October 2007 on the outskirts of Rome, the alleged kidnapping attempt of a baby by a teenaged Roma girl from Romania on the outskirts of Naples in May 2008, and the rape of a 14-year-old girl in a park in Rome on February 14, 2009 by two Romanian immigrants were widely reported in the media. All three were followed by mob violence directed at Romanians and Roma. 

An example of the often problematic approach to reporting is provided by the case of a Roma couple arrested in May 2008 in Catania on suspicion of attempting to kidnap a 3-year-old girl. At the time, major newspapers carried stories entitled, “Two Nomads Arrested, “They Wanted to Kidnap A Girl” (IlCorriere della Sera), “Roma Try to Kidnap Girl Grabbing Her Away From Her Mother” (Il Giornale), and “There’s No Doubt It Was Attempted Kidnapping” (La Stampa). After four months in pre-trial detention, the couple was acquitted. Only one major newspaper, Il Giornale, carried the story.[34]

The National Order of Journalists and the Italian Press Federation agreed in June 2008 on a code of ethics for the coverage of immigrants, asylum-seekers,  refugees and victims of trafficking—the Carta di Roma.[35] A study published by the Observatory on the Carta di Roma—a network of academics at universities around the country—in July 2010 found some positive developments in print media, including less indiscriminate use of the term “illegal” in reference to immigrants, and less recourse to “alarmist” rhetoric around immigration and security issues.[36]

Response of Civil Society in Italy

Throughout Italy, a wide variety of NGOs and associations, as well as labor unions, work to counter racist and xenophobic attitudes and behavior. Notable initiatives include the SOS Diritti (SOS Rights) telephone hotline run by the Italian Recreational Cultural Association (Associazione Ricreativa Culturale Italiana, ARCI), legal assistance to migrants and asylum seekers provided by the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immgrazione, ASGI), and the social support offered by Catholic Church’s agency Caritas.

In March 2009, a coalition of 27 organizations, including ARCI, ASGI, Amnesty International’s Italy section, Caritas, Community of Sant’Egidio, Federazione Rom e Sinti, Rete G2 Seconde Generazioni, UNHCR, and several labor federations launched a campaign called “Don’t be Afraid” (Non Aver Paura). The campaign collected over 80,000 signatures for a petition against racism and intolerance, and was presented to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in October 2009.[37]

ARCI launched a campaign against all forms of discrimination in June 2009: “Racism is a boomerang—sooner or later it comes back to you.” The campaign featured a poster of MPs Jean-Léonard Touadi and Anna Paola Concia, both bare-chested, with the words: “You call us dirty nigger and disgusting lesbian. But you feel offended if someone calls you Italian Mafioso.” It is difficult to assess the impact of these laudable awareness-raising campaigns on popular opinion. They have not led to specific policy or legal reforms.

International Concern

Racism and discrimination in Italy have attracted international consternation. Doudou Diène, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, observed in 2007 that Italy was “facing a disturbing trend of xenophobia and the development of manifestations of racism, primarily affecting the Sinti and Roma community, immigrants and asylum-seekers primarily of African origin but also from Eastern Europe, and the Muslim community.”[38] 

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expressed concern in 2008 about hate speech, including by politicians, directed at foreigners and Roma; negative attitudes and stereotypes about Roma; and ill-treatment of Roma by law enforcement officers in the course of camp raids. The committee urged Italy to “take resolute action to counter any tendency, especially from politicians, to target, stigmatize, stereotype or profile people on the basis of race, colour, descent and national or ethnic origin or to use racist propaganda for political purposes.”[39]

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg said in 2009 following a visit to Italy that he was “particularly worried by consistent reports that continue to evidence a trend of racism and xenophobia in Italy, occasionally supported by activities of local authorities, which has led also to violent acts against migrants, Roma and Sinti or Italian citizens of migrant descent.”[40] 

After a March 2010 visit to Italy, Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, expressed her “considerable concern at the authorities’ policy of treating migrants and the Roma as, above all, a security problem rather than one of social inclusion,” and her “alarm at the often extraordinarily negative portrayal of both migrants and Roma in some parts of the media, and by some politicians and other authorities.”[41]

During Italy’s review under the Universal Periodic Review mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council in February 2010, 28 countries expressed concerns relating to the treatment of migrants and Roma and Sinti.[42]

[1] Letter published in La Repubblica, May 7, 2007, (accessed February 4, 2011).

[2] Caritas/Migrantes. Immigrazione Dossier Statistico 2010. XX Rapporto sull’Immigrazione. Synthesis. Available at  (accessed November 2, 2010). This figure includes Italian-born children of immigrants. Those born in Italy do not automatically acquire citizenship but may apply for naturalization upon reaching eighteen years of age.

[3] “Clandestini in Italia?  Solo un immigrato su cinque,” La Repubblica, 24 February 1998, (accessed July 28, 2010).

[4] Caritas dossier, Immigrazione Dossier Statistico 2010, p.8.

[5] Ibid., p. 5.

[6] Caritas/Migrantes. Immigrazione Dossier Statistico 2009. XIX Rapporto sull’Immigrazione. Synthesis. Available at (accessed August 2, 2010), p. 1, p. 4.

[7] Human Rights Watch interview, Jean-Léonard Touadi, parliamentarian with the Democratic Party, Rome, May 28, 2010. Touadi fled to Italy in 1979 from the Republic of Congo Brazzaville. Prior to being elected to the House of Deputies, Touadi was advisor on security issues for the center-left administration of Mayor Walter Veltroni in Rome.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Studio: per 61,2% degli italiani gli stranieri aumentano la criminalità,”, February 11, 2009, (accessed December 14, 2010).

[10]Milo Bianchi, Paolo Buonanno, and Paolo Pinotti, “Immigration and Crime: An Empirical Analysis,” (accessed July 27, 2010), p. 4; Consiglio nazionale dell’Economia e del Lavoro, Indice di Integrazione degli Immigrati in Italia, VII Rapporto, July 2010,$FILE/Testo?20VII?20Rapporto%20CNEL%20Immigazione.pdf (accessed September 28, 2010), p.181.

[11]Caritas di Roma, in collaboration with Camera di Commercio e Provincia di Roma, Osservatorio romano sulle migrazioni, Sesto rapporto, February 2010, (accessed July 20, 2010), p. 7. The report found that while the number of foreign residents in Rome and surrounding areas increased by 60.5 percent between 2005 and 2008, reported crimes increased by only 5.2 percent.

[12]Human Rights Watch interview with Noureddine Chemmaoui, member of the governing council, Union of Islamic Communities of Italy, May 27, 2010.                                               

[13] Dichiarazione dello stato di emergenza in relazione agli insediamenti di comunità nomadi nel territorio delle regioni Campania, Lazio e Lombardia, 21 May 2008, published in the Official Gazette No. 122 of 26 May 2008,

[14] Ordinances no. 3676, 3677, 3678 of the President of the Council of Ministers, all adopted May 30, 2008, on “Urgent civil protection provisions to tackle the state of emergency in relation to nomad community settlements” in the Lazio, Lombardy and Campania regions, respectively.

[15] Legge 94 del 15 luglio 2009, Diposizioni in materia di sicurezza pubblica, published in the Official Gazette No. 170 of  24 July 2009. Human Rights Watch called on the Italian senate to reject provisions in the bill in advance of the debate;

[16] The law also increased from two to six months the amount of time migrants and asylum-seekers may be held in detention for administrative purposes; increased requirements and associated costs for acquiring residency, citizenship and for family reunification; created the obligation to exhibit a valid residency permit for all civil acts, including birth registration; and imposed a duty on money transfer agencies to report clients without a valid residency permit.

[17] Corte Costituzionale, Sentenza No. 249/2010, July 5, 2010, (accessed July 27, 2010). The Constitutional Court also found that the provision violated article 25 of the Constitution, which establishes, in the view of the Court, the principle that an individual may only be punished for his or her behavior and not for personal characteristics.

[18] See Human Rights Watch, Pushed Back, Pushed Around: Italy’s Forced Return of Boat Migrants and Asylum Seekers, Libya’s Mistreatment of Migrants and Asylum Seekers, 1-56432-537-7, September 2009,

[19] “Immigrati: Maroni, Accordo con Libia ha risolto problemi sbarchi,” AGI, August 25, 2010, (accessed November 2, 2010).

[20] Human Rights Watch interview with a representative of the Central Directorate of Criminal Police, Rome, October 28, 2010.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.; ODIHR, Hate Crimes in the OSCE Region. Incidences and Responses, Annual Report for 2007” October 2008, p. 36, 41; ODHIR, “Hate Crimes in the OSCE Region. Incidences and Responses, Annual Report for 2008,” November 2009, p. 79; “Hate Crimes in the OSCE Region. Incidences and Responses, Annual Report for 2009, November, 2010, p. 19–20.

[23]ODIHR, Hate Crimes Annual Report 2007, p. 36, 41; Hate Crimes Annual Report 2008, p. 79; Hate Crimes Annual Report 2009, p. 25.

[24]ODHIR, “Hate Crimes in the OSCE Region. Incidences and Responses, Annual Report for 2008,” November 2009, p. 79.

[25]Human Rights Watch sent letters on April 14, 2010 and July 6, 2010 requesting this data.

[26]Human Rights Watch submitted the request on November 4, 2010.

[27] Lunaria, “I casi di razzismo riportati sui media. 1 gennaio 2007-14 luglio 2009. On file with Human Rights Watch.

[28] Freedom House, Freedom of the Press Index, (accessed July 27, 2010).

[29] Reporters Without Borders, Press Freedom Index 2010,,1034.html (accessed November 2, 2010). Italy ranked 49th out of 178 countries. Thirteen EU countries ranked in the top 20; only Romania, Bulgaria and Greece received a worse ranking than Italy.

[30] See for example Ilvo Diamanti, professor of political science at the University of Urbino, “Il Marketing del Cavaliere e il bipolarismo della xenophobia,” La Repubblica, January 31, 2010, (accessed October 20, 2010).

[31]“Immigrati: nei media congelati negli stereotipi di ‘criminale, maschio, e clandestino,”, December 21, 2009, (accessed July 27, 2010).

[32] Ibid.

[33] Human Rights Watch interview with Dodo (psyeudonym), Catania, April 17, 2010).

[34] Corrado Giustiniano, “Se lo zingaro è innocente, allora non c’è notizia,” Il MessageroBlog “New Italians,” October 16, 2008, (accessed July 30, 2010).

[35] The Carta di Roma is available (in Italian) at http://www.cartadiroma/cosa-e-la-carta-di-roma/ (accessed July 27, 2010).

[36] A summary of the results and a power point presentation are available on the Italian UNHCR website at (accessed October 11, 2010).

[37] (accessed March 3, 2010).

[38] Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Doudou Diène, Mission to Italy, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/4/19/Add.4, February 15, 2007, (accessed May 13, 2010), p. 2

[39] Concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: Italy, U.N. Doc CERD/C/ITA/CO/15, May 16, 2008, (accessed May 13, 2010), Para. 15.

[40] Report by Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, following his visit to Italy on 13-15 January 2009, CommDH(2009)16, April 16, 2009, (accessed December 15 ,2010), p. 2.

[41] Statement of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Her Mission to Italy 10 to 11 March 2010, March 11, 2010, (accessed May 13, 2010)

[42] Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review of Italy, UN Doc A/HRC/14/4, March 18, 2010, (accessed December 9, 2010).