ROME — Italy's hard-line interior minister, who recently sparked a multinational showdown by refusing entry to a Mediterranean Sea rescue boat packed with 630 migrants, is now taking aim at Italy's minority Roma community.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini told a Lombardy television station Monday that he wants to conduct a census or "registry" of Roma in Italy. Salvini, the leader of Italy's right-wing League party, insisted later the project's purpose wasn't to identify individual Roma.
"I've asked the ministry to prepare a dossier on the Roma question in Italy," he told TeleLombardia, adding that the current situation of Roma, also known as Gypsies, was "chaos" several years after a crackdown.
Italy has a sizeable Roma community that includes people originally from Romania and the former Yugoslavia. Authorities periodically clear out the squatter camps where many live on the outskirts of big cities.
Salvini's remarks sparked immediate denunciation from center-left politicians, who warned that Italy had a "terrible" history with its Fascist-era census of Jews.
"You can work for security and respect for rules without becoming fascist," tweeted Democratic lawmaker Ettore Rosato. "The announced census of Roma is vulgar and demagogical."
Salvini stressed in a follow-up statement that he had no intention of taking digital fingerprints or making index cards of individual Roma. He said he wants a study of the overall situation.
"We are aiming primarily to care for the children who aren't allowed to go to school regularly because they prefer to introduce them to a life of crime. We also want to check how millions of euro that come from European funds are spent," he said in a statement.
Salvini was asked about the Roma by TV interviewers and callers complaining about migrants, crime and the recent arrests of a band of Roma women arrested for pickpocketing at Milan's central train station.
The minister said he wanted to "redo what was once called a census, making a registry" of Roma to know who they are and where they live.
He later wrote on Facebook that he wanted also to help "those poor children who are brought up in these camps surrounded by theft and illegality."
His comments made headlines in a country still reeling from the weeklong standoff he started by refusing entry to the Aquarius, a rescue ship carrying 630 migrants who were picked up in waters off Libya. A convoy of three boats landed with the passengers Sunday in Valencia, Spain.
Salvini, whose League party scored huge gains in March 4 elections on its xenophobic platform, has vowed mass expulsions of migrants. He said of the Roma who have Italian citizenship, "We have to keep them."
Salvini said he plans to meet this week with Pope Francis, who has dedicated much of his pontificate to urging countries to welcome and integrate migrants.