Italian Northern League party leader Matteo Salvini speaks during a rally in Rome on February 28, 2015
Rome (AFP) - The head of Italy's anti-immigrant Northern League party came under fire Wednesday for saying the country's overcrowded and segregated Roma camps should be bulldozed.
Matteo Salvini, a rising star on the Italian right, said in an interview he would "give six months notice then raze the Roma camps to the ground," insisting that ethnic Roma should rent or buy houses like other Italians.
Although over half the 170,000 or so Roma and Sinti people in Italy are Italian citizens with regular jobs and houses, some 40,000 of them are housed in purpose-built camps and hate crimes against the poorest are rife.
Camp dwellers have been prevented by council regulations from applying for public housing even if they were born in Italy, trapping them permanently in the fenced-off centres, far from schools, shops, health care centres or workplaces.
"After segregating us for 30 years, now they want to turn up with bulldozers and get rid of us? Just let them try," said Dijana Pavlovic, spokeswoman for the Roma and Sinti council.
As Salvini's comments incited calls from supporters on social media for the camps to be destroyed with Roma people still inside, Laura Boldini, the lower house of parliament speaker, said she found "the use of the verb 'raze' worrying."
"The Roma camps should be done away with, but there must be alternative housing solutions," she said, for Italian-born Roma, recent migrants from eastern Europe and Sinti, an ethnic group present in Italy for centuries.
Hate crimes are on the rise, with campaigners pointing out cases in 2014 including episodes in which a politician called for Roma to be burned in ovens and a shopkeeper put up a sign banning Roma from the premises.
- Empty promises, forced evictions -
A report by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) last year warned of daily discrimination and violence against Roma in "an ever-growing climate of racism".
These included repeated cases of local residents attacking camps with Molotov cocktails while police turn a blind eye.
Pro-Roma group Associazione 21 Luglio accused Salvini of trying to win votes with inflammatory comments which they said had no basis in reality, because the Northern League party's policy has long been to build new Roma camps.
Its head, Carlo Stasolla, said that while rights groups had been given repeated assurances by councils that the camps would go, there was evidence of high-level corruption which suggested it was in the interest of some for them to stay.
An anti-mafia investigation in Rome in December uncovered a network run by a one-eyed mobster who swapped the drug trade for the more lucrative immigration and Roma housing business.
The mobster's right-hand man, Salvatore Buzzi, was head of several associations including Eriches 29, which in 2013 received almost 2 million euros ($2.1 million) for managing a run-down camp in Castel Romano on the outskirts of Rome.
In the past three years, new camps or centres have been built in Rome, Milan and several southern Italian cities, and plans to build further structures at a cost of over 20 million euros are already advanced, according to the association.
There were 34 forced evictions in 2014, involving over a thousand people at a cost to the taxpayer of over one million euros, 21 Luglio said in its 2014 report, which was released Wednesday.
Pope Francis's decision to declare a jubilee year -- which will run from December 8 to November 20, 2016 -- risks raising the number of forced evictions in Rome as officials tidy up the city for visiting pilgrims.
"After the pope's announcement, the number of evictions jumped from two a month to six in one week," Stasolla said.