Fighting discrimination against the Roma community through political activism: an interview with Giulia di Rocco, President of the first Romani political party in Italy

06 December 2021 /

12 min

The Romani community is the largest ethnic minority in the European Union: it is estimated that around 10 million Romani people live in Europe, of which approximately 6 million are citizens or residents of the EU. Despite national regulations against discrimination, many EU Roma are still victims of social exclusion and prejudice. According to the report “Roma and Travelers in Six Countries”, issued by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) in 2020, almost half of Roma and Travelers (45%) surveyed felt discriminated against in several areas of life, as when looking for a job, at work, in education, in access to healthcare or housing. The results of the report become even more alarming considering that not only the rate persons that report discrimination is very low (21%), but also only half of the respondents (53%) were aware of laws prohibiting discrimination based on skin color, ethnic origin or religion. 

Despite this, efforts are coming from the Romani community itself in trying to fight back discrimination and to improve the social and living conditions of Roma. This kind of activism, usually seen under the form of associations and engagement in civil society, has taken further steps in some Member States, resulting in an increasing political engagement. This is the case of the first Italian Romani party, Mistipè.  It was founded in 2020 by three Italian Romani women from regions where the Roma community has ancient roots dating back to the 14th century, namely the Abruzzi and Molise. 

To get to know more in-depth Roma’s political activism, together with its motivations and challenges, Eyes on Europe took the opportunity to interview Giulia di Rocco, President of the Mistipè party. Mrs. di Rocco is a legal assistant and a law student at the University of Teramo. She has a long experience as an activist: she is involved in many bodies and organizations promoting human rights and the safeguarding of the Romani community, like the CIDU (International Court for Human Rights), the ERRC Italia (European Roma Rights Center) and the UNAR (Anti-Discrimination Bureau under the Minister of Equal Opportunities promoted by the European Council). Her background in social activism and political engagement will be useful to understand the condition of Roma from different perspectives.

Where did the idea of founding a party representing Roma and Sinti in Italy come from?

“We are three Italian Romani women belonging to a Roma community present in the Italian territory since the 14th century. All of us have the experience of 15-20 years of activism. Me and another woman also affiliated with the party collaborate with the Minister of Equal Opportunities and the UNAR bureau (National Office against Racial Discriminations) within a forum concerning Roma exclusion, in particular regarding the elimination of racial hate and discrimination. The UNAR is a bureau promoted by the Council of Europe, which established an office in each of the Member States. This bureau limits its job to collecting denunciations on racist episodes and promoting actions of cultural nature regarding the integration of the Roma community. 

The idea of founding a party stemmed from my twenty-year experience in activism, which made me realise that the question of the Romani community cannot be conceived anymore as a cultural or social issue. Until 20-30 years ago the Roma world was unknown to most, but this should not be the case nowadays: there are even training courses, also within several institutions (like the police, social assistants, the clergy, etc.). So there are wide communication campaigns on this theme. Despite all this information, the full inclusion of the Romani community is yet to happen. 

Me, as a Romani working woman who lives in a house, who has children attending school, I do not feel excluded: I feel discriminated against. This situation gave me the idea of founding a political party.

Discussing with my colleagues in other Member States made me aware that the situation in other countries was quite different from the Italian one. Taking the Spanish case as an example, there are four Romani political parties and four people in the actual government as representatives (two women and two men). There is a Gitano Secretariat for issues regarding the Romani community that directly establishes contact between Roma people (contrarily to the Italian case of the “UNAR” bureau). They are Roma themselves, within the government, that deal with all the requests and problems concerning their community. They also have an institute of Gitano culture, where each year they reward Romani persons that excelled in the cultural, social or sportive realms, which is something that we do not have in Italy. They are 20 years in the future compared to us. Getting to know these different realities led me to question myself: What are we doing wrong? Where are the gaps in the Italian system? The answer lies in the inefficiency of politics. We, the Italian Romani community, do not have any other point of reference but the UNAR bureau. But I wonder: who is representing me? To whom I can seek help or for a piece of advice concerning actions that I want to pursue? There is no one. 

Us, the activists, the associations, have our limits: we can carry out actions, we can make projects, but they are limited in space and time. They are not like long-term actions for inclusion operated by the government. 

I do not consider myself a politician, I have always been an activist and, as a Romani, I live my discrimination. Hence, I embarked on a journey with two other women. This choice was intentional, since we suffer double discrimination: as women within a male-dominated society and as women within the Romani world, where the woman is still subordinated to men. That is why I thought that, if I want to make a revolution, this must start with Roma women. Among us three there is Sara Cetti, an activist with a 15-year experience in the UNAR field and the first Roma stylist in Italy. Then, there is Virginia Morello, the first Roma trade unionist in the country. Last, there is me, operating within the judicial realm. Each of us is active in diverse fields and has different backgrounds, but the fight against discrimination is what brings us together. This is why we have decided to cooperate to find a way to change the situation.

Regarding the name of the party, I wanted to avoid choosing a name that recalled the usual slogans of politics’ rhetoric. Rather, I wanted something that could truly represent what we wanted to do. Because of this, we opted for Mistipè: in the Romani language, this term represents the most beautiful word, it expresses the good, reciprocal respect and love. We want respect, but at the same time, we want to give respect. 

So, in December 2020, just before the announcement of a new Covid-19 lockdown, we decided to found the party. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, our actions are still limited, in particular the ones targeting the territory.

The idea of founding Mistipè was born to stand for the Italian national election of 2023: we do not work towards obtaining local or regional constituencies, since that would not change the general condition of the Romani. Our goal is rather to obtain a seat in the Parliament. We are aware of being numerically slim (about 200.000 in Italy, of which 180.000 are Italian citizens. The rest is formed by Romani of new immigration: they are Roma living in the camps who come from Eastern European countries). Despite this, we can make a difference. And in fact, we did: we already launched an electoral campaign for the local elections of the region of Abruzzi. We stayed loyal to our aim of not standing for elections, since we didn’t participate as a party. However, it was asked to us, on behalf of some friends, to support candidates close to the Romani community. We sustained two women who acquired the seat of municipal councillor. All of this shows that Roma can make a difference. 

At the national level, it usually has been the left-wing parties who promote Roma candidates, but more recently also the center-right (namely, the “Forza Italia” party led by Silvio Berlusconi) nominated some Romani figures. This is nothing but a strategy to gain votes, but the left-wing as well is an accomplice of this trend: parties have become aware that Roma are Italians, and so, vote bearers. We become the good and the bad of Italy: we are bad because in every electoral campaign there is always an enemy to fight, which usually is the Romani community; but at the same time, we are a source of votes. Promises are made to us that are never kept, also in the case of Roma candidates: they are a source of votes, but they are never the top candidate (neither in left-wing parties nor in right-wing ones).

Despite Mistipè representing Roma, it is crucial to remark that we are not ghetto-making: this is a critique that has also come from the Romani, in particular the ones who work in some associations. Unfortunately, within the Romani community, many people earn money from associationism. We have been attacked by these associations that have been in the scene for more than 30 years, through which of course they have obtained good results. They do not want to change the situation because it is not convenient for them. Contrarily to them, after having been subject to discrimination together with my daughter, I decided that I wanted to change things for the best and to concentrate my energies on something good, which remains a legacy for the next generation. I committed to the cause firstly as a woman, secondly as a mother, and then as an activist.

Even though our party is represented by Romani women, that does not imply that it exclusively embraces women and/or Roma. The will to affiliate to a party should not depend only on  identifying oneself with the party’s identity, but also on  one’s belief in certain ideals. We’re talking about the possibility that the Romani community enjoys the same rights as other citizens. Even Roma associations took on us, misunderstanding the question.

The party has been conceived as a union between Abruzzi’s and Molise’s Romani, due to their common origin. In Italy, Roma are more present in the center-South and the South, whereas the Sinti prevail in the Northern regions. The Sinti are Roma coming from Germany and France that later settled in Italy.” 

How was the founding of Mistipè received? 

“At first, it was a bomb. Many people asked me if it was a prank. At first, I was pestered by the media, something that has been both a good and a bad thing. We knew what to expect. We did not receive any sort of reaction from long-standing associations. On the other hand, the new ones, mostly run by the new generations, have greeted us quite positively. The same reaction came from associations managed by non-Romani, the gajè

The foundation of Mistipè has not been well received in the political arena, since we can snatch votes from other parties. We finally have a bargaining contract: do you want Roma votes? Then you must include our strategies in your political program at the national level. 

Why do I have to wait for a man to represent me? Having two valuable women by my side I do not need to lean on a man. However, this makes everything more difficult, since we must break a taboo in a society where women have a subordinated role in comparison to men. If we have a seat in the Parliament, I would like it to be occupied by a woman: this would be the first seat representing the Roma community in the history of Italian politics.”

How would you define the conditions of the Romani community in Italy?

“There has always been discrimination against the Romani community in Italy, which reached its peak under the Nazi-Fascist regime. The difference between the past and the present is that today the discrimination takes place at  the discursive level rather than on actions. Today, keyboard warriors, slogans and political movements like the “Lega”, which bases its propaganda on “bulldozers” (a reference to the party secretary Matteo Salvini’s call for the destruction of Romani camps with bulldozers, n.d.) have led to a re-increasing of hate towards Roma- In fact, as it was reported by a study undertaken by the UNAR, 78% of Italians affirm being intolerant or racist regarding the Romani community. 

I’ll give you an example: Roma living in camps, who are part of that group of recent immigration and who fled from very difficult situations that led them to take shelter in Italy, are totally neglected. This is totally different from the situation of other migrants, for which an organizational and management system is put in place. In fact, the Romani community receives a different treatment: they have been put into Nomad camps. These camps were not created by Roma, but by the Italian state. This is nothing but a Nazi-Fascist legacy, a practice stemming from what was Fascism in Italy. Who goes into camps? People that are considered as not worthy to live in our society. The fact that it has been 60 years that these people are there has led them to accept their condition, as if this way of living was their new reality: they got used to live in a form of racial segregation. 

They have tried to dismantle the camps, but without any success: those Romani always end up coming back. This is mainly due to two relevant factors: firstly, within the mind of the Rom, a system of self-exclusion has settled in; the latter is there is a form of survival economy that is not present in the apartment, since families would be deprived of the assistance of the rest of community within the nomad camp. Obviously, I am not justifying the illegalities (all the more reason being a Law student myself), but at the same time, I can also understand Roma’s struggle to fight exclusion: who gives a job to a Roma? They also find difficulties in looking for accommodation if it is not the state or the municipality that provides them with one. Even when they find themselves being legally eligible for public housing (according to a public list), they are not accepted by other tenants, as if the latter has the decision power to decide who can benefit from public housing and who cannot. 

Given the large size of Romani families, there have also been petitions on the part of some Roma for micro-areas and not apartments, since these would not be appropriated to host a very big family. I do not agree with this proposition, since this would lead to the formation of new nomad camps.Also, the Romani family, being patriarchal in nature, tends to stay united and to isolate itself from society. This is not good, this is why a solution must be found in order for the Romani to be integrated in the society and at the same time being able to live their romanipè, hence their culture.

Being a member of different international movements and taking part in different conventions have made me aware that we are the most discriminated ethnicity at the global level. In total, we are 12 million, a number that has been influenced by the exterminations under the Nazi-Fascist regimes, and also by the fact that many Romani women have been sterilized in different states. In relation to Nazi-Fascism, I can argue that we, Roma, have also undergone historical memory discrimination. In the rest of the world people speak about Roma genocide, since the group was exterminated to the same degree as the Jews during the Holocaust, but Italy does not recognize it. Also here there is a paradox: I have been cooperating for 4-5 years at the Minister for Education and for 4 years with the UNAR (under the Minister of Equal Opportunities). I did some travels to Auschwitz as the representative of Italian Romani. I was also invited for 3 years in a row to the Quirinale during the Holocaust Remembrance Day, alongside the Jews. Despite all of this, what happened to Roma during the Holocaust is not told in history books. The only award that was given to us by the Italian state was provided by the Senato: it was conferred to Goffredo Bezzecchi for having being a survivor to Porrajmos (the genocide carried out against the Romani community in the Nazi-fascist camps).”

Do you think that political activism on the part of the Romani community could contribute to fight the stereotypes and discrimination that it suffers?

“Yes, I strongly agree with this, especially if I take into account the example of the people who worked before us to improve the condition of the Romani community. Unluckily, I cannot say that our predecessors succeeded in eliminating all the racism towards us, since this is a phenomenon that still persists at the global level. However, they contributed to eliminating obstacles that prevented Roma from having a normal life, especially the ones regarding the fundamental rights of citizens: work, accommodation, education… 

I quote again the Spanish model since I deem it to be one of the best and most efficient ones. Spain is not a reality far from ours, but, despite that, there are no camps there, discrimination at work is way lower and there is much more political activism within the Romani community. When the populist right-wing politician Matteo Salvini proposed the creation of a census for Roma in Italy, the first ones to actively protest were the Spanish activists. I am focusing on Matteo Salvini, but in reality the problem lies in the whole part of politics that instrumentalizes hate. What we have to ask ourselves is: why aren’t they doing the same with other minorities? Why all this witch-hunting toward the Romani?. The response is that, contrarily to Roma, other minorities are represented and safeguarded at the institutional level. 

Within political institutions, there are individuals representing the Northern regions, the Southern ones, religious minorities and migrants, but no one personally representing Roma. At the moment, the best we can aspire to is that someone outside of the community spends a word for us as if we were beggars for protection in need of a spokesperson. This is partly due to the fact that the activists before us never attempted to break this wall. Now, this kind of situation is not bearable anymore, a new step forward is needed. It is required, at the institutional level, to develop and to implement targeted policy solutions. This is not related to a lack of laws: in Italy there are laws that protect against discrimination. We have acts, also at the constitutional level, wherein the safeguarding of linguistic minorities and diversity is granted, but this is not enforced when it comes to the Romani community. Unluckily, I also have to admit that many individuals inside the community are not familiar with national laws. If you knew your rights and how to defend them, you would be able to make a step further, and this is what Roma are lacking. Because of this, those who had the opportunity to study have the moral responsibility to help those who didn’t have it. Awareness brings you to reason on injustice, whereas ignorance makes you accept the situation you are in. Consciousness favours anger, discouragement and discontent, and because of this, those who studied are who want a way out from this condition of disadvantage. 

When I started cooperating within the world of associationism, I felt there was something wrong as if I was not able to express myself: at first, I used to justify this feeling with being inexperienced. Then, the more it went on, the less satisfied I was: of course, I organized and took part in activities for the Romani community, but I felt that something was missing. I came up with this at the moment in which I became the mother of a baby girl: since then, I understood that it is not so much about what I want for myself, but rather what I want for my children. My vision of reality has become more pragmatic. Cultural and social activities and sensibilization campaigns are of course important, but I think there are problems that go more in-depth and that cannot be solved if we do not have any political influence. 

Within the program of Mistipè, the objectives we want to pursue are the following:

  • The equality between men and women
  • Labor, not merely in the sense of promoting the inclusion of Roma within the job market, but also making possible for an individual that is part of the community to benefit from the same treatment of other workers
  • The promotion of education within the community through solidarity activities, like the provision of school supplies to Romani families who live under harsh conditions. This kind of proposition has also the aim of incentivizing the creation of solidarity programs on a greater scale, and not only targeting the Roma community 
  • The achievement of recognition as a linguistic minority

Our program is not very large, since we have decided to proceed by taking baby steps, giving priority to actions we deem to be of primary importance to improve the conditions of the Romani community.” 

What are your future projects?

“If Covid allows it, one of our goals would be to expand our networks to other areas of the Italian territory outside the Abruzzi region. We want to open other branches both in the North and in the South, in order to make the contacts between Roma and the party more direct. From there, we would like to organize ourselves to run for the 2023 national elections, with the goal of obtaining a seat in the Parliament. This would represent a game of strength towards other political parties.

We are aware that, even if we succeeded, the condition of the Romani community in Italy wouldn’t change immediately: the effects of actions at the institutional level are only visible in the long term.  Our main actions would be focused on the education of young Romani people: we work towards an increment of the number of educated Roma, who will be able to take our place one day. I put my trust in Roma women, since they amount to more than half of our 180.000 people community.

Together with international networks on which I am leaning on, we aim to reach the Council of Europe. In the organization I am actually working with, the Rete Nazionale dei Gitani (lit. “the National Network of Romani”), we have the goal to extend this network to the point of involving other states, in order to create an organ that could represent us at the political level. I do not want to be its chief, but I would like it to be led by a Romani woman. Within the Council of Europe there are Romani spokespersons, but they mainly represent their homeland and not Roma community at the international level. I feel lost because we do not have any spokesperson nor at the national or the European level. If I needed a piece of advice or assistance, I could only rely on certain associations. 

All of this seems a utopia, but if I succeeded, I could say to my daughter that I was able to lead a woman part of the community to the Italian government. This would lead to a revaluation of the romanì woman, who would be put in a leading position. Having this as a model, other Romani women would want to start emancipating themselves as well. 

The struggles we have carried out in the last 20 years have been fruitful, but we know that associationism is not enough. Because of this, there is only one path to follow now: the one of politics.”

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