Italy's new right-wing interior minister Matteo Salvini said his department has to look into "the Roma question" in Italy — a comment the opposition said reminds them of Italian fascism.
Salvini said Monday he wants to take a census of Italy's Roma population.
"Unfortunately, we will have to keep the Italian Roma because we can't expel them," Salvini told Telelombardia television.
Center-left politicians immediately jumped on Salvini's comments, likening it to ethnic cleansing.
"You can work for security and respect for rules without becoming fascistic," lawmaker Ettore Rosato tweeted. "The announced census of Roma is vulgar and demagogical."
But Salvini said he wants to help the Roma, an itinerant ethnic group. He said he wants to know who they are and where they live, and protect Roma children, whose parents he said did not want them to integrate into society.
"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," he said.
The interior minister said he has no desire to take fingerprints of the Roma or keep index cards of individuals. He also said he wants to see how European Union funds earmarked to help the Roma are spent.
Many Roma live in camps on the outskirts of Italian cities. They complain of lifelong discrimination, being denied job and educational opportunities.
But officials say many Roma are responsible for petty crimes, such as pickpocketing and theft.
Salvini's comments about the Roma came a week after Italy refused to let a shipload of migrants dock at an Italian port. Spain gave permission for the ship to dock in its country Sunday.