Roma family left Italy after child custody threat

A Roma family at the centre of a furore in France left Italy after being warned their children could be taken away because they were begging and not going to school, the local mayor told AFP.

"We put pressure on them," said Stefano Aguzzi, the mayor of the seaside town of Fano in central Italy where the Dibrani family lived for years.

"He was told by social workers that there was a risk that the children would be taken away if he refused to send them to school," Aguzzi said, referring to the father of the family, Resat.

"It was a veiled threat, a warning," he said, adding however that no legal proceedings were ever begun to strip Resat Dibrani of custody.

A local charity worker who helped the family, Primo Ciarlantini, said the father "was afraid that his children would be taken away".

"Resat decided to go to France when the possibility of him losing custody of his daughters was mooted," Ciarlantini said in a phone interview.

"He was concerned because one of his own nephews was taken away by police and social workers three years ago from a classroom here," he said.

The expulsion from France of 15-year-old Leonarda Dibrani, her parents and five siblings to Kosovo has sparked protests and raised questions about the government's immigration policy.

Based in Italy until 2008, the Dibrani family were provided by the town with an abandoned village school by the seashore to live in.

"The children hardly ever went to school even though he had signed them up. He sent them out begging. They lived in the streets," Aguzzi said.

"We told him that he could not continue living here without paying for anything. We gave him a set of rules for him to be able to stay."

He said Resat was told by officials: "You're not in Kosovo now, where you can do what you want".

Ciarlantini, who runs a Christian charity called The Samaritan that helps Roma families and unemployed people, said he had had "a love-hate relationship" with Resat since the early 1990s.

He said there was also a problem of intolerance towards the few Romas who live in Fano.

"The mentality here is they should all go back where they came from, even when they are born in Italy," Ciarlantini said, adding: "Town officials did not go out of their way to help them."

Ciarlantini said he had helped the father find several odd jobs in the town including one at a metal factory, but the man walked away from them.

"He was difficult. He was always arguing," he said.

"He drove around in a minibus with his family and they would go begging, knocking door to door."

'Not welcome back'

The mayor said the town originally came to the aid of Dibrani and other Roma people in the winter of 1991 when they were living in a tent camp nearby that was covered in a heavy snowfall that year.

But since then he said local residents in the town of 60,000 people had "divided" over the Roma who numbered just 35 in 1991 and are now four families.

"One half thinks we've already done enough and others want to offer more hospitality," he said.

Asked what he would do if the Dibranis were to return, Aguzzi said: "Let's just say that I would not welcome them back with open arms. We would consider them like we do all the other immigrants."

Deported after her family was denied asylum status, Leonarda's case captured public attention because she was detained during a school outing.

Leonarda's father has since admitted twisting the truth about his family's Kosovo origins to boost their chances at winning refugee status in France.

Dibrani now says he is the only one in his family to have been born in Kosovo, while his wife Xhemaili and five of their six children, including Leonarda, were born in Italy.