On Saturday 19 October the case of Maria “the blonde angel” made headlines around the world. She was taken from her Romani family in Greece on suspicion that she had been trafficked because she bore no resemblance to her parents. Subsequent DNA tests proved that she was not related to her family and now the hunt is on to find her biological parents. Since then in two separate incidents in Ireland children have been taken from their families – on both occasions because they did not look like their parents. A two year old boy was taken from his parents overnight and returned the following morning. A girl, aged seven, was held in the custody of the state for two days until DNA tests confirmed that her parents too were telling the truth. In Serbia there are reports that skinheads tried to take a child from his parents because his skin was not dark enough.
In all these cases the initial assumption has been that the child must have been kidnapped and trafficked and media reports quickly linked Maria to the cases of missing children Madeleine McCann and Ben Needham. Subsequent reports indicate that Maria was a happy child and well cared for, regardless of how she came to join the family. Unlike in the Irish cases there appears to be no biological relationship but among Romani families there is a long history of informal adoption and sometimes a disregard for bureaucratic procedures. Nevertheless, problems with paperwork and indications of child benefit fraud are making it difficult for her parents to prove their case.
In a world where we assume that individuals are innocent until proven guilty, it horrifies me to think of the trauma these children are suffering during these periods of separation from their families. As the dark haired mother of a blonde child it also frightens me to think that someone might stop me and demand blood tests to prove our relationship. However, I am not Roma and thus it is far less likely that anyone would suspect me of such a thing. For Romani families, this must be a terribly worrying time because of the persistence of libels and myths of Roma and Gypsies stealing children.
Among academics debates continue about the origins of Roma communities and their role in European societies. The general public takes a simpler view, largely informed by the Gypsy characters in popular culture – Carmen, Esmerelda or the Raggle Taggle Gypsies. These characters tend to have dark features but given that Roma have been part of European society for hundreds of years, it is no surprise that there are plenty of fair-skinned Roma too. Myths of the supernatural powers of Roma and Gypsies have indeed been exploited in order to provide incomes as fortune tellers and healers. However, the stories of stealing children have absolutely no basis in fact at all. Often in fact it is the reverse, the European Roma Rights Centre reports trends that Romani children are more likely to be taken into state custody than children from other ethnic backgrounds, all other factors being equal. This is what is so worrying about the stories emerging this week. There is a real danger that the rising anti-Romani sentiment which we see across Europe will accelerate in the context of the events this week. It is a dangerous time to be a fair-skinned Romani child.
This post was updated on 24 October to reflect the DNA results confirming the innocence of the Romani family in Dublin.