Argus title : Racism doesn’t spare children
My family and I have recently returned from a trip to the Italy’s Lido di Jesolo near Venice, where there are ten miles of near perfect sandy beach and safe swimming in the Adriatic. We lounged by the beach, swam when we chose and ate and drank far too much in our very comfortable hotel. It’s a place we have visited many times before.
The only slight irritation on this occasion was that our somnolent lazing on the sand was regularly interrupted by hawkers selling cheap watches, bags, towels and toys and others offering massages. It troubled us that they appeared both more numerous and more desperate to sell items than they had ever been before.
We returned to Britain to learn that just a week or two earlier, elsewhere in Italy, two child hawkers 13-year-old Cristina and 11-year-old Violetta Djeordsevic had died by drowning, on just such a beach, surrounded by holiday-makers.
The two were part of a group of four children who traveled from a poverty-stricken gypsy community outside Naples to the beach at Torregaveta, west of the city, which is popular with Italian day-trippers. Like the men and women offering their wares on the Venetian Lagoon, the girls went to sell cheap trinkets to visitors and tourists.
The red flag was up and the tourists weren’t swimming. However, for reasons that are not yet clear, Violetta jumped into the water and got into difficulties. Cristina attempted to help her, but tragically both drowned.
The dead children were dragged from the sea by a passer by and surrounded by a curious crowd, but when they could not be revived were simply left on the sand, their corpses laid side by side under beach towels. No ambulance attended.
Photographs of what happened during the hour it took for the mortuary van to arrive, were flashed around the world – and have shamed Italy. As the girls lay dead on the beach, their thin feet protruding from under the towels, Italian holiday makers around them began to return to their leisure activities. There are photographs of them picnicking, applying sun lotion, sunbathing and even playing ball and throwing frisbees.
The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported. “Few left the beach or abandoned their sunbathing. When the police from the mortuary arrived an hour later with coffins, the two girls were carried away on the shoulders [of the officers] between bathers stretched out in the sun.”
One eyewitness on Italian TV said: “It was very surreal. There was this picture of a typical Italian beach with families enjoying the sun and then just metres away were the bodies of these two children. People were completely indifferent about what had happened.”
Laura Boldrini, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commission for Refugees, commented: “Accounts would seem to suggest that hardly anybody intervened to save this children and even in death there seemed to be total indifference as their bodies lay on the beach while people continued to enjoy themselves.
Crescenzo Sepe, the Cardinal of Naples, condemned the attitude of holidaymakers, saying: “At times turning the other way or minding one’s own business can be more devastating than the event itself…. in the background holidaymakers…appear more upset at the fact their view of the beach has been obstructed.”
He said that Cristina and Violetta “had faced nothing but prejudice in life and indifference in death; an unforgivable truth.”
Laura Boldrini commented: ”I wonder if these people would have behaved in the same way if the children in question were Italian and not Roma?”
It is a question being asked across Italy. Civil liberties groups have pointed out that a Roma encampment near Naples was burned to the ground this year after its inhabitants had been evacuated for their own safety. It was just one of several such attacks.
Italy’s Roma live in discrimination and poverty and their situation has become worse since Silvio Berlusconi’s rightwing government came to power in May. One of Berlusconi’s key partners in government is the National Alliance, a party formed as a successor to Mussolini’s Fascists. Another is the Northern League, a party comprised of individuals whom Dan McDougall of the Observer has recently called “restyled former Fascists, anti-immigrant forces and traditional conservatives.” The League’s leader Umberto Bossi is notorious for having advocated shooting at boats bringing immigrants into Italy.
Berlusconi has ordered the fingerprinting of the country’s Gypsy population, including children. According to Francesca Saudino, a human rights lawyer “The Italian right blames much of the country’s street crime on the Roma, in particular on children sent out by adults to rob and steal” adding: “..many working class people think the Roma no better than animals, and the government is using this xenophobia to win votes and popularity…The deaths of these girls has come to represent something more, perhaps a battle for Italy’s soul.”
Berlusconi has told the European Commission that the children are being fingerprinted to encourage school attendance. Saudino suggest a different reason “There are an estimated 152,000 Roma in 700 camps across Italy and the Interior Ministry hopes to dismantle them all. Thirty per cent have Italian citizenship, but the rest are immigrants, many from Romania and the Balkans. We suspect that the Gypsies are being identified only so that they can be expelled.”.
The European parliament has recently approved a motion condemning fingerprinting as an act of discrimination banned by the European convention of human rights. Catholic human rights organisations have criticised the practice as reminiscent of the Nazi persecution and the chief rabbi of Rome has insisted it must be stopped. Amos Luzzatto, former head of the Italian Union of Jewish Communities, said that the policy recalled “days when I could not go to school, and people would point at me saying: “Look Mummy, it’s a Jew.” This is a country that has lost its memory.”
The British, unlike the Italians, have no strong tradition of fascist activity, but we are very capable of racism and of indifference to the suffering of marginalised groups. It is not so very long since a Sussex bonfire society caused outrage by choosing to torch, not a Guy, but a caravan decorated as a travellers’ home, complete with cardboard figures of women and children it referred to as “Pikeys”.
According to Rachel Shields of the Independent: “Studies in recent years have shown that Gypsies and Travellers experience more racism than any other group in the UK, including asylum-seekers. The most recent Mori poll on the issue revealed that a third of UK residents admitted to being prejudiced against Gypsies and Travellers…”
According to the British Medical Association, the community has the lowest life expectancy and highest rate of child mortality in the UK. Ofsted has also reported low levels of educational achievement and high rates of illiteracy among Traveller children, due to a disrupted education and bullying.
Richard Sheridan, president of the Gypsy Council said “”I don’t think that the situation in the UK has changed much since the 1960s – those ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Gypsies signs’ are not very far away.”
Here in Brighton, the settled community is faced with a decision about where to site a permanent travellers’ site. The Council’s preferred location for a 14-pitch site is at the former BMX track off Wilson Avenue. Labour and Green councillors asked for the decision to be reviewed, but this was not agreed. The matter will now go forward to the Planning Committee, which will make a decision taking into account public representations. The stage is set for major and potentially nasty confrontation.
I have no knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages of this particular location and confess ignorance of the planning issues involved. However, the one thing of which I am certain is that our community needs to make provision for well-planned traveller sites which are appropriately situated, resourced and landscaped – not least so that traveller children can receive the education and access to health care which is their right.
All one can ask of members of the settled community is that they make their representations and decisions on a basis of generosity, fact and reason and that they do not allow travellers – especially their children – to become pawns in what could become a very ugly political game.