Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has caused outrage among opposition politicians and rights groups after announcing controversial plans to conduct a comprehensive census of the country’s Roma community with an eye on expelling those who do not have Italian nationality.
The 45-year-old far-right minister, who is also one of the country’s two deputy prime ministers, defended his census project on Tuesday, tweeting, “I’m not giving up and I’m pushing ahead! The Italians and their safety are first.”
His comments came a day after opposition lawmakers lambasted the idea of the census as “racist” and “fascist.”
Also on Monday, and in a question-and-answer session held on Italy’s regional television channel TeleLombardia, Salvini, who is the head of the far-right League Party, stirred controversy when he unveiled his census plans, arguing that it would allow the authorities to see “who, and how many” Roma were in the European country.
Italy’s Roma community, whose members are estimated to number between 130,000 and 170,000, is mostly composed of people originally from Romania and the former Yugoslavia. According to a 2015 poll by Pew Research, some 86 percent of Italians have unfavorable views of the community, some of whom prefer to be called Gypsies.
“I’ve asked the ministry to prepare a dossier on the Roma question in Italy,” Salvini said on Monday, adding that the current situation with the Roma was “chaos.” He noted that the aim of the counting project was to study the overall situation of Roma in the country, rather than to identify and keep records of individual Roma.
He also said that the census would mean those members of the community who were in Italy illegally could be deported.
Salvini, however, showed no favorable attitude towards legal members of the community, either. “As for the Italian Roma, unfortunately, one has to keep them at home.”
The anti-immigrant Salvini said at the end of his comments that his main intention was in fact to protect the Roma children “who aren’t allowed to go to school regularly because they prefer to introduce them to a life of crime.”
His televised comments, however, drew rapid reproach and condemnation from opposition legislators, who pointed to Italy’s “terrible” history with a census of Jews during the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini.
“You can work for security and have respect for rules without becoming fascist,” Democratic lawmaker Ettore Rosato tweeted, branding the project as “vulgar and demagogical.”
Salvini’s remarks also prompted members of the newly-established ruling coalition to criticize the census project, with Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio saying that any such project based on ethnicity would be “unconstitutional.”
The plan also drew the ire of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who said on Tuesday that, “No one is planning to create files or conduct a census on the basis of ethnicity, which would be unconstitutional because it is clearly discriminatory.”
Referring to Salvini’s census project, Alexander Winterstein, a spokesman for the European Union Commission, said that “as a general rule, we cannot deport a European citizen based on ethnic criteria.”
Last week, Salvini came under fire by rights groups over refusing to allow the Aquarius, a French NGO-operated charity ship carrying 630 migrants, to land in Italy.