When a nomadic people like the Roma do not have their own country, who will stand up for them?
It is fascinating to see people all over Europe listening to and enjoying the music and art of the Roma people, who are often known as “gypsies.” Roma have contributed to the history, culture and literature of the region, being not only a separate ethnic minority, but also an integral part of the societies and nations in both the Americas and Europe.
Even today, however, they remain stigmatized and disparaged. Media portrayals promote stereotypes about the Roma, accenting the negative aspects, and complicating their interrelationships with non-gypsies.
The Mysterious Story of Maria
In mid-October 2013, a story broke out in international media that a 4-year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed girl named Maria was living with a gypsy couple claiming to be her parents, with whom she bore no physical resemblance. According to The Greek Reporter, on October 16, during a routine “operation” on a Roma settlement in Greece, police spotted the child and became suspicious as she was light-skinned, while gypsies, who are ethnic Indians, are typically dark-skinned. “[D]uring their questioning by the competent police officers, [the Roma couple] changed repeatedly their story about how they got the child; a fact that strengthened the conviction of the officers that the little girl was not the child of the above mentioned individuals.”
Around the same time, The Economist rehashed old data about child-trafficking by gypsies. The detained Roma couple consistently told Greek police that they did not abduct Maria, but they would later change their story about how they got her. In fact, on the day the story broke, a Bulgarian man known by residents in the settlement to be Maria’s biological father visited after the arrests. But Babis Dimitriou, the chairman of the Farsala village Roma association, who contacted The Daily Telegraph, explained that: “All the other Roma here were telling the Bulgarian man to explain to the police that the girl was his, but he has now disappeared.”
The multiple stories told by the Roma couple about how they got Maria prompted DNA testing, which confirmed the child was not biologically their offspring. Local searches for the child’s biological parents in Greece were fruitless, thus launching an international search through missing persons lists in many countries, including Canada, Ireland and the United States.
Consequently, a Greek charity organization, The Smile of the Child, took custody of Maria and announced a Europe-wide alert in an effort to find child’s family. According to an article in The Huffington Post, “Panayiotis Pardalis, a spokesman for the charity, said ‘it was obvious’ that she was not a Roma girl.” The president of the charity told the BBC that “the girl was frightened and neglected when she arrived in their care but [was] in overall good health and was now more relaxed.”
The investigation over the child continued from October 16-25, 2013. During this period, desperate couples around Europe had hoped that Maria was their missing child. The Smile of the Child received approximately 8,000 calls and emails from parents around the world; some of them claimed that gypsies kidnapped their daughter while they were traveling, but none of the details they gave matched Maria’s description. Three couples, one each from Greece, Britain and Ireland, insisted that Maria looked like their missing child.
As Professor Sue Black, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Dundee, said to The Telegraph: “There is no way in which facial appearance can pin people to a particular part of the world any more [sic] because we are so cosmopolitan.” Instead, to better estimate whether Maria was found with her adoptive parents or kidnappers, “anthropologists could try to tease out whether the girl knew any words of a particular language,” Black added.
Nevertheless, international news overflowed with details of Maria’s situation, stirring public opinion against the Roma people and awakening stereotypes of the Middle Ages. Among other versions of the story, the detained Roma couple told Greek police that they got Maria from a Bulgarian gypsy woman who had no means to support the child. The Greek lawyer for the couple accused of abducting Maria stated they adopted her in a non-legal way. In a video for The Guardian, their attorney emphasized: “[I]f they wanted to do so, they would probably [have] sold [Maria] so far. The child is about 5 years old and lived in this family. They loved her and treated her as their own child.”
As Reuters reported: “Bulgarian police have identified a couple they suspect are the natural parents of a blonde girl found in a Roma camp in Greece … the couple are also Roma.” Their investigation revealed that a Bulgarian woman, Sashka Rusheva, and her husband, Atanas Rushev, were Maria’s biological parents. Maria’s blonde hair and pale complexion was down to her biological father’s albino gene. Further, Maria was observed to have a striking resemblance to the pair’s other five children.
At the time of this writing, this author could find no follow-up information about what eventually happened to Maria. Was she returned to her adoptive parents, forced to live with her biological parents who did not have the means to support her, or was she kept under the care of the charity organization?
Vilified in media and distrusted by societies in Europe, gypsies think skeptically about help coming from the outside world. In Greece, the size of the Roma community varies between 200,000 and 300,000 people, who rely on welfare payments, trading and begging. Unfortunately, these activities sometimes involve crime. Roma people living in Greece “are segregated into their own neighborhoods, and their children attend Roma-only schools built for them by the Greek state, something the European Court of Human Rights came down on Greek officials for in a court ruling.”
Although they are the largest minority group in Europe, Roma remain isolated, living below the poverty line and lacking basic education.
From the time the story broke, international media created an evil image of the Roma couple as kidnappers and poor and despicable creatures. On October 17, 2013, the day after the raid, The Greek Reporter released an article dubbed, “Blond Girl Found in Roma Camp,” which spoke about finding Maria “in the house of two natives” during a “lawful police operation” in a Roma camp. Some journalists even reported information that was false.
By repeating biased information, media around the world did not fact-check the information from the local Greek press, and they never pointed out that the Roma couple was telling the truth from the start. In fact, a PBS article stated: “Her biological mother, a Bulgarian Roma woman, stepped forward to claim Maria as her daughter, a claim verified by the DNA test.” This was false. The Bulgarian woman was found following a search for her that was only initiated after none of the couples who claimed Maria were found to be a match.
Human Rights of Roma
Not a single article even mentioned the possibility of human rights violations to the Roma couple. As they adopted Maria illegally and had problems with their papers, no one considered their human rights.
What complicates the issue of Roma human rights is their nomadic way of living. Since their first appearance in Europe around 1,000 years ago, they have been hated and persecuted by agriculturally-evolved societies. These institutionalized feelings directed toward gypsies presented in the news and other media put Roma people at the bottom of the social ladder. In eastern and central Europe, they typically live in segregated slums and are often seen begging or telling fortunes. However, the criminal image has always been associated with them. Disclosure of the Greek Roma couple’s “crime” of illegal adoption caused people around the world to regress into medieval superstitions about gypsies.
Each European country has its own human rights laws, and these should be applied to everyone in the country, regardless of their nationality or ethnicity. Human rights laws were not applied in the case of Maria. The media failed to report on this angle or even ask the question as to whether gypsies have human rights. When a nomadic people like gypsies do not have their own country, who will stand up for them?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.