Two of the biggest stories in Europe this week involve the seizure of blonde-haired, blue-eyed children from Roma families on opposite sides of the continent.
The first story broke last Thursday, when police raided a Roma camp near the town of Larissa in central Greece, looking for drugs and guns. During the raid they found a pale, blonde-haired, blue-eyed four-year-old named Maria. Greek police say she didn’t resemble the people purporting to be her parents, and that the couple “changed repeatedly their story about how they got the child.”
The second broke on Sunday, when a seven-year-old was taken from a Roma family in south Dublin and placed into care, according to an exclusive report from Sunday World.
There’s an obvious issue here. Europe’s Roma community (frequently referred to as gypsies in Europe, though the term is considered a slur by many) usually have dark skin and dark hair — the first Roma are believed to have traveled to Europe between the 8th to 10th centuries from the Punjab region of India.
The sight of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed child with Roma families raises the question — is the child a relative, and if not, how did the child get there?
In Greece, suspicion has turned to accusations. CNN reports that subsequent DNA testing “showed that there was not any genetic compatibility” between the girl in Greece and her alleged parents, and the parents are now due to face kidnapping charges. The latest reports suggest that the girl, named Maria, may actually be older than four years old.
The Sunday World reports that no-one in the family in Dublin has been arrested at this time, but police may ask the parents for DNA samples to confirm the child’s relation to the parents.
To understand why these stories have been so huge in Europe, consider the case of Madeleine McCann, a blonde British girl who disappeared on a family vacation in Portugal in 2007. She was four years old at the time.
The Madeleine case dominated British tabloids for years, despite few hard leads ever being discovered. One recurring theme, however, revolved around the possibility that Madeleine had been abducted and sold into child slavery. Though there was little evidence linking Madeleine to Roma groups, U.K. tabloids compared the case to those of Denise Pipitone and Ben Needham, who both disappeared on the Greek island of Kos in 2004 and 1991 respectively. Both Pipitone’s and Needham’s disappearances have been linked to the Roma community, though neither have ever been found (Needham’s family are now calling for DNA testing of other children at the Greek Roma camp).
Following the discovery of “Maria” and the unnamed girl in Dublin, a spokesperson for the family told the Daily Mirror that it gave the family “great hope that Madeleine could be found alive.”
But there’s a dark side to the sometimes rash furor over Roma abductions.
Roma communities all over Europe have long been the subject of discrimination for centuries — some estimates say that as many as 70% of the Roma population in Europe died in the Holocaust — but in recent years a number of anti-Roma nationalist parties have enjoyed electoral success — Hungary’s Jobbik, the Czech Republic’s Workers’ Party of Social Justice and Bulgaria’s Ataka, for example. In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn have targeted Roma immigrants.
Earlier this year Amnesty International called on Europe to end forced evictions of Roma communities, saying they are “the largest and one of the most disadvantaged minorities in Europe.”
Even if turns out these two blonde girls were abducted (and at this point, it does seem possible that the situation may be more complicated than that), it’d be amiss to generalize about the 6 million strong Roma community in Europe.
“The risk of this case is to further put more stereotype and racism on the general picture of the Roma community,” Dezideriu Gergely, executive director of European Roma Rights Centre, told CNN. “Criminality is not ethnically related.”