A police raid on a Roma settlement outside the rural town of Farsala in central Greece on October 16 made worldwide headlines.
The raid was nothing unusual but, as Associated Press said on October 22, “one of dozens of raids they have carried out on Roma camps in the past few weeks in a crackdown on drug smuggling and burglary gangs”.
For police, politicians and media in Europe, the link between Roma (or “Gypsies” to use the racist term favoured by the British press) and crime is self-evident.
The raid made headlines because the police decided that a four-year-old child at camp was not Roma ― on account of her having blonde hair.
Police took her to a children’s shelter and arrested Hristos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulou, her apparent parents, for abduction after DNA tests showed they were not the child’s biological parents.
Salis and Dimopoulou told police they had adopted the child, Maria, from a Bulgarian Roma couple, Sasha and Atanas Ruseva, who were in Greece for the olive harvest when Maria was born. The biological parents had been unable to take the baby back to Bulgaria due to poverty and, ironically, anxiety about crossing the border without documentation for the infant.
Roma do tend to be dark-skinned, reflecting that their ancestors migrated from parts of what is today India and Pakistan in the Middle Ages. However, having lived in Europe for more than 700 years, Roma populations include people who are more “European-looking”.
Using appearances as a basis for the state taking children away has chilling parallels with Australia’s history of stealing more “European looking” Aboriginal children.
The media dubbed the child “the Blonde Angel”, luridly reported authorities’ concerns about “Roma child-trafficking rings” and referred to medieval and Nazi mythology about Gypsies stealing children as if it were established fact.
Families of well-known missing children cases were asked for comment on the possibility their children were somewhere alive, enslaved by “Gypsies”.
The October 18 Daily Mail ran the headline: “Revealed: The rundown home where the four-year-old ‘Greek Maddie’ lived with her gypsy abductors.”
By calling Maria the “Greek Maddie”, the Mail was making a link with Madeleine McCann, a British child who, in a high-profile case, disappeared on a family holiday in Portugal in 2007, then aged three.
The Mail ran side-by-side close-up portraits of the two blonde-haired toddlers to underline its point. The article also made a connection with Ben Needham, who disappeared in Greece 1991, then aged 21 months.
The Mail expressed outrage that “the girl has fair hair and pale skin” but “can only speak obscure Roma language”.
“It was obvious that she was not a Roma girl,” Panayiotis Pardalis, a spokesperson for the NGO that runs the children’s shelter where Maria is being held, told the Mail.
“She was afraid and under some psychological pressure when she arrived. She was living under bad conditions and was very dirty, but is now safe.”
On October 23, Associated Press reported: “Three Greek Gypsies were arrested on the eastern island of Lesvos Wednesday on suspicion of child abduction, days after a similar case involving a girl known as Maria prompted an international investigation.”
In Ireland, two “white-looking” Roma children were stolen from their families by authorities: a seven-year-old girl on October 21 and a two-year-old boy on October 22.
The October 24 Guardian said the seven-year-old was taken after an “investigative journalist” from television channel TV3 alerted police to an anonymous Facebook post from a neighbour who had seen a “white” child with a Roma family.
Both children were returned to their respective families on October 24 after DNA tests proved that they were indeed their families.
Martin Collins, an activist with the Irish Travellers and Roma community group Pavee Point, told the Guardian: “We are extremely concerned and worried about these developments. We hope it is not the beginning of some sort of pattern where children of Roma parents who are not dark-skinned and have brown eyes are taken away one after the other for DNA test after DNA test.”
Maria also turned out to be Roma. On October 25, the Bulgarian interior ministry announced that DNA tests proved that Salis and Dimopoulou had told the truth when said they had adopted Maria from the Rusevas.
However, neither the authorities nor media have made any acknowledgement that their assertions she was not Roma were wrong. Instead the appalling poverty that Roma suffer as a result of racism was used as evidence of their failings, specifically as parents.
At the same time both couples, and Roma in general, were accused of rorting child support and other welfare benefits. Again, the parallels with Australian anti-Aboriginal racism are glaring.
Salis and Dimopoulou remain in jail on remand for abduction because the adoption was carried out without paperwork. After media coverage of their home in an impoverished Roma settlement outside Nikolaevo, the Rusevas’ other seven non-adult children were taken in state care.
However, CNN reported on October 28 that two of them ― 13-year-old Angel and 14-year-old Minka ― escaped.
On October 25, a Bulgarian court charged Sasha Ruseva with child trafficking for allegedly having sold Maria, although both couples insist no money changed hands.
Denied official existence
The case illustrates the issues Roma have through state authorities being reluctant to document their existence, such as a lack of birth certificates and other official documents.
Zeljko Jovanovic, director of the Open Society Foundations’ Roma initiatives office, explained in the October 28 Guardian: “No country in Europe has accurate statistics for Roma citizens in their official census or other state records …
“Because of this official invisibility, Roma are denied legal protection, public healthcare and the opportunity to enrol their children in school, get a job and register to vote.
“It also means Roma are at increased risk of human trafficking and miscarriages of justice. If you do not officially exist, it is easy to disappear and be disappeared.
“The gaps in official census records for Roma are staggering. A recent census registration campaign carried out by the Open Society Foundations and Roma communities in Hungary achieved a 63% increase in the registered Roma population, from 190,000 to more than 300,000.
“Huge disparities remain. In Serbia, the 2012 census registered 150,000 Roma; the real number is closer to 400,000.”
Exclusion and oppression have been experienced by Roma since they arrived in Europe. In the Middle Ages, England passed laws prescribing death for Roma refusing to leave a community or assimilate when ordered to. A 1551 German law prescribed death for simply being a “Gypsy”.
In medieval Romania, Roma were enslaved, a situation that continued until the 19th century.
In the 20th century, eugenics and scientific racism were added to prejudice and economic and political exclusion. Across Europe, Roma suffered forced sterilisation.
Anti-Roma racism was at its most extreme in Nazi Germany and German-occupied Europe. About 70-80% of the European Roma population was murdered by the Nazis, a similar proportion to the Jewish population.
The key difference between the Jewish and Roma holocausts is, as British Roma blogger Filip Borev wrote in the October 25 Guardian, in the case of the Roma, “no reparations were paid, no apologises made, no mention in your children’s history text books”.
The silence about Hitler’s genocide of Roma helps allow modern European politicians and media to continue to abuse Roma in language used by Nazi propagandists. It’s difficult to imagine the Daily Mail suggesting that Madeleine McCann or Ben Needham may have been sacrificed by Jews in their Passover rituals, for instance.
The October 22 New Yorker reported that, in a radio broadcast in late September, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said of Roma: “This population has a style of life that is extremely different from our own and is in conflict with it. There is no other solution than dismantling these encampments and sending them across the border.
“For cultural reasons, the occupants of these camps don’t want to integrate into our country and they are in the hands of networks of crime and prostitution.”
On October 9, Valls sent armed police to drag 15-year-old Leonarda Dibrani off a school bus to be deported with her family to Kosovo.
Valls is also responsible for demolitions of Roma settlements and eviction of Roma communities.
As for Maria, she is likely to continue being separated from both her adoptive and birth parents. She is still in Greece at the children’s shelter where she was taken on October 16. Her adoptive parents are still in jail.
Bulgarian authorities have said she should be repatriated, but not to the custody of her biological parents, whose other children have now been taken.
So whether in Greece or Bulgaria, Maria is likely to remain in state “care”. This is an extremely dangerous situation for a Roma child in south-east Europe to be in.
On October 23, Time reported that “502 out of 661 Albanian Roma children … reportedly went missing between 1998-2002 from a state-run Greek children’s institution in Athens, Agia Vervara … an archived report from the Greek Ombudsman from 2004 suggests that these children could have been given to human traffickers.”
Not originally a victim of child trafficking, Maria is now at risk of becoming one.