A recent spate of cases involving members of the Roma community and allegations of child-snatching has shone an uncomfortable spotlight on Europe’s attitudes and treatment of the Roma, and what some are calling a “witch-hunt” against one of Europe’s largest ethnic minorities.
Last week the story broke of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl found in a Roma camp near the town of Larissa, Greece. Authorities had raided the camp in search of evidence of drugs and guns. It was during this raid that they found the four-year-old, named Maria, whose appearance did not match her parents.
A DNA test showed that the girl was not their biological child, and authorities doubted her parents’ account of how they came to adopt her. Her parents, 39-year-old Christos Salis and 40-year-old Eleftheria Dimopoulou, were detained on Monday pending trial on charges of abduction and document fraud. Both deny the charges. Meanwhile a Greek charity, Smile of the Child, has been looking after Maria and has received thousands of calls following an appeal to find her biological parents. Costas Yiannopoulos, the director of the charity, suggested to the New York Times that Maria’s case “opened a Pandora’s box about what’s happening with the Roma and the exploitation of children in Greece but also in Europe.”
On Monday, a similar case emerged on the other side of the continent; this time a seven-year-old blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl was taken from her family, who are of Roma origin, after police officers called at a house in Tallaght, a suburb of Dublin. Similarly to the Maria case, police became suspicious given the difference between the girl’s appearance and her family’s. Not believing the birth certificates the parents produced, police removed her from her family, reports the Sunday World newspaper. The parents, both of whom have not been arrested, have agreed to DNA tests to establish whether or not she is theirs.
Some have voiced concerns over the way both stories, which have attracted significant global attention, have been reported in the media. Ethel Brooks, an expert on Roma and associate professor in women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University, says the full spectrum of coverage of Maria’s case from the BBC to tabloid newspapers like the Daily Mail have “all contributed to the sensationalism” and vilification of the Roma. She points to the way newspapers have published images of the girl’s muddy face, with suggestions that the girl had been mistreated as examples of this sensationalism. Brooks explains that these are all rooted in the centuries old stereotype of Roma as child-snatchers. This stems from a long-held idea that Roma, who tend to be darker-skinned than many Europeans, cannot have blonde-haired or blue-eyed children, says Brooks.
Zeljko Jovanovic, director of the Open Society Foundation’s Roma Initiatives Office in Hungary, echoed similar concerns about the way the issue has been portrayed. He said that the representation of the Roma community in these stories highlights an “ongoing hatred” of the Roma in Europe that has been “alarming and amplifying for a number of years.” Jovanovic suggests the consequences of the scapegoating and stereotyping could be “grave” because the “whole community is blamed for this.” Speaking with TIME, Jovanovic says already reports have emerged on Tuesday of skinheads attacking a Roma family in Serbia, because the child had whiter skin than the parents. “This is a perfect excuse for many to intensify collective blame for Roma.”
The estimated 10 to 12 million Roma in Europe have roots in India, but have been in Europe as far back as the 13th century. The most significant populations are in eastern European countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, but also in France, Greece and the U.K. The community has long been subjected to oppression and violence, and continues to face difficulty in accessing basic education, health services as well as building a political voice in their home countries.
Brooks explains that this has often been spun into a false “assumption that Roma don’t want to integrate, or be European.” A recent case in France of the deportation of Leonarda Dibrani, a 15-year-old schoolgirl who was deported to Kosovo along with her family in September, highlights that discrimination. Though President Francois Hollande made a widely-derided offer to let her return alone to France to finish her studies, his Interior Minister, Manuel Valls has made comments on French radio suggesting that Roma people “don’t want to integrate into our country and they are in the hands of networks of crime and prostitution.”
This characterization of a whole community however has enabled many to gloss over the reality that Romani people are often the victims of crime, says Brooks. Both she and Jovanovic point to the much-less covered case of the disappearance of 502 out of 661 Albanian Roma children, who reportedly went missing between 1998-2002 from a state-run Greek children’s institution in Athens, Agia Vervara. There have been repeated calls for an investigation, including from UN bodies, but an archived report from the Greek Ombudsman from 2004 suggests that these children could have been given to human traffickers. This is part of a broader, overlooked history of Romani children being taken away from their family by the state, says Brooks.
Jovanovic asserts that the Maria case in Greece is of course a possible crime, but the way the story has been reported by the world’s media suggests that “there is a witch-hunt against the Roma.” With many European countries gearing up for national and local elections in the coming year, Jovanovic fears that this singling out of the Roma will only continue to intensify. “What it boils down to is the crime of individuals. We must not use the reports of possible crimes to vilify 12 million people,” he says.