The headlines about this story were troublesome from the outset: A “Blonde Angel” child was found in a Romani community in Greece, and the Romani couple claiming to be her parents were suspected of having obtained the child illegally. Like so much of the most salacious coverage, the facts emerged piecemeal, and were originally overshadowed by sheer unsubstantiated speculation. Before the story was resolved, the incident had spurred two similar investigations in Ireland, and anti-Romani sentiment, always strong in Europe, had skyrocketed.
Police in Greece were conducting a raid on a Romani camp (the circumstances for this raid have been represented in several ways, which in itself is significant), when they noticed a child who just didn’t look like she belonged there, because she was fair-skinned, blonde, and light-eyed, while her parents were dark-complected. From there, all hell broke loose: the girl was taken away from her parents and her parents were arrested for other crimes. Within days, two more cases of suspiciously blonde children emerged, this time in Ireland. When all was said and done, the two Irish children were revealed to be the biological children of their parents; while the child in Greece (called Maria) was NOT the biological child of the two people raising her. A few days later, it emerged that another Romani woman who lived in Bulgaria was Maria’s biological mother, and she had given her to Maria’s parents to care for.
Even though the panic had turned out to be unwarranted, it didn’t stop media attention to the various behaviors (i.e. stereotypes) associated with Romani: most notably, allegations of child trafficking. There was also frightening backlash: In Serbia, for example, skinheads invaded a Romani community and attempted to take a two-year-old child from his parents because he was too light to be their child.
Won’t Someone Think of the (Blonde) Children?
There are so many troubling aspects about this story, but I’m going to go with the one that started the problem. People had their children taken away because it just didn’t look right. This sudden spate of alleged cases really stemmed from the fact that the children didn’t look right: their skin was too light, the reasoning was, for them to belong with Romani parents. In other words, authorities swept into Romani communities and plucked out the whitest children.
Now, if authorities had been legitimately concerned about child trafficking, they should have cast an eye over the rest of the community. It stands to reason, genetics being what they are, that there were other children who really didn’t resemble their biological parents at all. But that didn’t occur.
Life as a Romani in Europe
Anti-Romani prejudice has been in effect for hundreds of years in Europe. Countries passed laws to keep the Romani segregated from the main population, and enforced them brutally. In World War II, conservative estimates state that 25% of the Romani population died in concentration camps.
Today, Romani people are Europe’s largest minority group, numbering between 10 to 12 million. There are anti-discrimination laws in place to protect Romani, but these are on the national level and address policy. On a day-to-day basis, however, Romani people still face targeting and harsh treatment in the communities where they live. Local officials flout the anti-discrimination laws on a regular basis: Romani children are segregated in local schools, and Romani are frequently driven out of their settlements and given no alternative housing, thus requiring them to live a nomadic existence. It’s not a surprise, given these circumstances, that 90 percent of Romani live below the poverty level.
In another ironic twist, Romani people, most notably women and children, are extremely vulnerable to being trafficked. The European Roma Rights Centre has estimated that Romani people make up a majority of trafficked persons in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia. They are trafficked for a variety of purposes, including sexual exploitation, forced labor, illegal adoption, and debt bondage. The ERRC concluded that there is no one vulnerability factor, but a number of them, that contribute to the high number of Romani among trafficked persons: extreme poverty, structural forms of ethnic and gender discrimination, usury and social exclusion. Being in the care of the state, an area where Romani children are over-represented, is also a factor in making them vulnerable to trafficking.
These incidents, rather than opening people’s eyes about the dismal circumstances that most Romani live in, just reinforced stereotypes and moved on. Very few turned the full focus on the victims of this discrimination. It’s amazing that it could be ignored, but I guess people have had a lot of practice doing that.
Author’s Note: It took me a while to write this piece because I was uncomfortable that I didn’t know enough about the surrounding issues to do it justice. I didn’t want to write a “B+” overview article. However, writing it got a LOT easier when I realized that circumstances necessitate a topline to start with: the discrimination faced by Roma people is so vast, and so outrageous, that it is hard to get your head around it.