Witch Hunts

Roma Face Persecution Across Europe In New Baby Stealing Panic

From Ireland to Italy, Roma are facing a new wave of persecution and harassment in Europe—including having their children taken in for genetic testing—in the wake of the discovery of little Maria. By Tom Sykes and Barbie Latza Nadeau.

10.24.13 5:00 PM ET

It had been a long 72 hours for the Dublin Roma family whose seven year-old child was removed from them by the authorities, a series of events triggered after police read a Facebook message which called into question her parentage because she had blonde hair and blue eyes.  But at about 5:30pm last night, after a ruling from a secret family court a few miles and a world away in the centre of Dublin, the mood in the hardscrabble suburb of Tallaght began to lighten.

The adults were tight-lipped, but the kids gave it away. The DNA tests had revealed that yes, the girl was indeed the biological daughter of the Roma parents who claimed her. The children started running up and down the street, waving balloons, calling out the little girl’s name in celebration.

Shortly afterwards, a 21-year-old sister (neither the girl nor her family can be identified under Irish family law) dressed in a traditional flowing Roma dress, topped off by a less traditional fluffy pink dressing gown with polka dots, came out of the house and confirmed to journalists that the seven-year-old was coming home.

Holding back tears, the woman said that she was happy that her sister was coming home but talked in broken English about the agonizing trauma of the past three days. The child, she said, had not eaten for three days. The whole family had been very worried and upset. They had been crying every day. They hoped this would never happen to another family.

“We’re going to have a big party tonight,” she told The Daily Beast, “A traditional Roma party with singing, dancing and music. We always had all the proofs and we never doubted she would come home.”

It was bitterly cold by 9:45pm, when the child finally arrived home and was rushed into the house covered in a blanket (ironically, covering her in a blanket meant that Irish papers were able to use the pictures, as the child’s identity was obscured).

The Roma family later issued a statement through their lawyer which called for an investigation and threatened legal action. “They do not accept that there was any proper or sufficient basis to take their daughter away from them,” the statement said, adding that they hoped no other family had to “go through the experience that they have just suffered.”

In fact, a family a hundred miles away in the provincial town of Athlone had been through exactly the same thing while the case in Dublin was playing out. The parents of two-year-old Iancu Muntean spoke of their trauma after he was removed by the gardai amid questions over his parentage.

“I say to guards: ‘What make you take my baby?’” Mr Muntean told the Irish Independent. “When somebody take your kid you feel sick, you feel bad.”

Did the Irish police really believe the ancient, pernicious myths that the Roma steal people’s children? What next, a swoop by the Irish cops on eagles lifting babies from prams?

Speaking in the Seanad last night, the Minister for Justice Alan Shatter said he would ask the Garda Commissioner for a report on the background to the cases with a view to reviewing procedures.

This morning, the Irish premier Enda Kenny tried to argue that race was not a factor in the removal of the children, telling the Irish Times: “This should not be seen to be about any group or any minority, this is about children, and there’s always a balance to be struck if there are genuine fears about the health, welfare and safety of children.”

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His argument is likely to fall on deaf ears. The fact remains that the children were removed on the basis of claims that they did not resemble the couples who were their biological parents. The Irish are, for now at least, outraged, on behalf of the Roma, sensing their reputation for tolerance and open-mindedness, born of a history of enthusiastic emigration themselves, is under threat.

But mainland European Roma are enjoying no such public support. Europe’s Roma, who also are also referred to in less politically correct terms as gypsies, have been smeared with allegations of child abduction since Victorian times.  Parents in Europe and the United States have been facetiously warning their children they’d be “stolen by gypsies” or “sold to the gypsies” for centuries.

Roma baby-stealing myths, fed by the ongoing fascination with the disappearance of British girl Madeline McCann in Portugal, have now been revived after the appearance of “Maria,” a blonde child not genetically linked to her supposed parents, who was discovered in the Fasala Roma camp in Greece.  The couple who raised Maria claimed she was informally adopted from a mother who could not cope. As a global search for her real parents ensues, many European countries are scouring their own Roma camps in search of other missing children.

According to Greek media, investigators in Greece are considering a theory that Maria was supposed to be sold for around €20,000 after she arrived at the camp. But when the deal fell through after a crackdown in illegal adoptions between 2008—2010, her Roma parents supposedly bought her for around €1,000. Officials are also testing the DNA of a Bulgarian Roma woman who gave birth to a child in Greece in 2008 and says she had to leave her behind because the familiy could not support her.

Officials are adding fuel to the fire: “A plausible scenario is that the little girl ended up with the Roma family after the crackdown on a ring involving illegal adoptions via Bulgaria between 2008 and 2010,” according to police in a televised press conference on Greek SKAI television.

Meanwhile, in Italy, persecution of the Roma has become almost a national pastime. In 2007  the Italian government tried to introduce special legislation to make “zingari” or “sinti” people illegal immigrants even if they had valid European documents.  The move was to rid the streets of the aggressive window washers, bolstered by claims that the gypsies were responsible for 75 percent of petty crimes in the country.  One has to only go near a tourist attraction in Rome to see signs warning tourists in multiple languages about the “gypsy pickpockets.”  Roma settlements are frequently targeted by hate groups. In the last five years, a dozen camps have been set alight across the country.  Many camps have been razed by authorities, especially in the northern regions, where there is little tolerance for ethnic division.

Now, Italy’s right-wing political groups have seized on the discovery of Maria to try and introduce parliamentary legislation to allow for similar sweeps across Italy in search of “stolen” babies.

“The case of little Maria found in a Roma camp in Greece that authorities suspect was an abduction by a pair of nomads should give us pause,” said Edmondo Cirielli, a deputy with Brothers of Italy. “The government should put in place every possibly policy to have more controls over the Roma camps in Italy and not let the issue get lost in the banality of alleged racism.”

In France, an entire settlement of Roma in the heart of Marseille abandoned their encampment in the dead of night last week, out of fear they would be targeted by police. Swedish police were also condemned after the discovery of an NSA-style race-based database of more than 4,000 Roma, including details of 1,000 children.

Searches are also continuing in Greece, where an archaic birth registration system that makes it easy to facilitate benefit fraud is being examined. Three Roma people were arrested on the Greek island of Lesbos when they tried to register a two-and-a-half-month old baby with dodgy documents earlier this week.  Like the case of Maria, the alleged parents claimed that someone had given them the child to take care of.

Amnesty International calls the persecution of the Roma worrying.  Between 10 and 12 million Roma live in Europe.  Amnesty International says that thousands of the Roma children “are placed in segregated schools and receive a substandard education.” In a recent report on maltreatment of the Roma people, they wrote, “When it comes to the treatment of the Roma, EU governments are not just failing to respect binding international human rights standards, but also to enforce EU anti-discrimination law.”

As in many other parts of the world, the Roma are not popular in Ireland, regularly indicted for everything from aggressive begging to benefits fraud. Many citizens born in the country resent that they have the same entitlements to Ireland’s generous welfare state, and accuse them of never working. They are particularly hated in Tallaght, as the brick-proof perspex windows and CCTV cameras mounted on the side of houses attest.

Appalling and shameful for Ireland as it has been, the Dublin case may, in the long run, work in the Roma’s favor as it exposes so graphically the casual, institutionalized racism doled out to these people as a matter of course.

And, for once, the Irish people are on the Roma’s side.