Guilty until proven innocent: Injustice, racism and the Roma

By Sinan Gökcen

To be dark or to be blonde: that is the question. Surely not in our times one would think. But this is indeed the case for Roma, and someone’s complexion and hair colour may change their lives dramatically.  In October 2013, the police were conducting routine patrols at a Roma camp in the town of Farsala, in Northern Greece. They came across a couple with a four-year-old kid, and they were immediately alarmed. The parents of this girl were Greek citizens of Romani origin with dark complexions, Eleftheria Dimopoulou and Christos Sallis. But the little girl, Maria had porcelain skin and golden locks. This image of a “black and white” family caused immediate suspicion among the police, the couple was detained and Maria was taken into social care. The state authorities immediately assumed that the “blonde angel”, as the Greek media dubbed her, had been abducted from a “European family”. The formula was very simple: Roma are dark people and they steal babies. Maria is blonde. Thus, it was obvious that Eleftheria and Christos “stole” Maria. The negative prejudice fuelled with increasing racist attitudes over recent decades toward Roma led to an extra judicial verdict.

Credit: AP

Maria’s iconic angelic features soon made her a Europe-wide, then global news sensation. The story of “blonde angel”, as the media in general referred to her, covered front pages of the newspapers, occupied prime-time news bulletins on TV channels. Even Interpol was asked to step into resolve the case. It was almost a “lynching hysteria” which swept away all journalistic and legal ethics.

As “blonde angel Maria frenzy” took hold across Europe, supposedly confirming the myth that “Roma snatch children”, two fair-haired Roma children in Ireland, a girl aged seven, and a two-year-old boy, were taken from their parents by police. The reasoning was the same: The children didn’t look Roma because they had fair skin and hair. But the DNA tests proved that the children belonged to the families that they were removed from. And based on the DNA tests, they were returned to their families.

The Maria case, followed by the Irish case further provoked anti-Roma sentiments and Roma were presented as “child abductors” in several media. The ERRC issued a statement on 22 October 2013, asking the media “to act responsibly in reporting the situation, especially as the full facts of the original case have still not been established.” The ERRC statement underlined that “Irresponsible reporting could have severe, negative consequences for Roma families across Europe. If a crime has been committed in Greece, and this is still by no means clear, those who committed it should be treated as individuals, not as representatives of their ethnicity. Criminality is not related to ethnicity.” The statement also served a reminder that, “Roma children are, however, much more likely to be put into state care, trapped in segregated education, and forcibly evicted from their homes. These are the stories that don’t make it to the front page.” The ERRC urged restraint, and that “all local authorities, media outlets and other stakeholders fully examine the facts before acting.”

Most of the news stories about Maria started with the physical description of the child: a blonde, blue-eyed girl. This “loaded” style reflected not only the prejudices against Roma but also the “verdict”: The girl was stolen from a “white family”. The Greek couple claimed the girl's biological mother willingly gave her to them as a baby because she could not look after her. DNA tests have shown that the girl is not related to the couple and the couple was arrested.

Maria, indeed, was not the biological daughter of the Greek couple. But she was, despite her blonde hair and blue eyes, a Roma. Maria was born to a Roma family with very dark complexions, just like her foster parents. She was the daughter of a Bulgarian Roma family, who were engaged in back-breaking seasonal work in Greece. The biological parents, Sasha and Atanas Rusev, left her into the care of Dimopoulou and Sallis when she was seven months old, saying that they were too poor to look after her. Their testimony confirmed the Greek couple’s statement.

Two years after the saga, on November 9, the court in the Greek city of Larissa ruled that Dimopoulou and Sallis are innocent, and they were cleared of all child-snatching charges. They received suspended prison sentences of 48 and 18 months respectively for the use of forged documents. As for Maria, she remains in the care of the Athens-based charity Smile of the Child.

The Irish government took its responsibilities more seriously. In 2014, it launched an investigation into the acts of the police and offered to compensate both Roma families. An inquiry by the Ombudsman for Children has found “ethnic profiling” played a role in the Garda’s decision to remove the fair-haired two-year-old boy in Athlone from his family and the Garda also failed to critically evaluate an allegation by a member of the public about the fair-haired seven-year-old girl in Tallaght.  The seven-year-old girl ended up changing her hair colour over fears she might be taken from her family again, while the parents of the two-year-old had been left in a state of shock and distress. Furthermore, the Minister for Justice and the acting Garda Commissioner issued apologies for the State’s handling of the cases. On 19 October 2015, the High Court awarded the boy’s family with 60,000 Euros compensation, declaring that the whole investigation took off due to a “brief period of hysteria”.

But brief episodes of hysteria are costly for Roma; in each of the cases, lives were altered, and traumas were caused just because of the simple physiological difference of being blonde or dark. The deeper reality behind these cases is discrimination though; most of the 10 million Roma live under desolate conditions; facing dire conditions of discrimination.

Now is the time to demand answers to the following questions: Will the media that directly or indirectly labelled the entire Roma community as a community of “child abductors” provide an apology? Furthermore, will the media learn a lesson from the “Maria” and “Irish” cases and start to reflect upon the real problems that Romani individuals and communities face instead of reproducing and disseminating anti-Roma prejudices? Will the Greek media follow the Irish path and compensate Maria’s family?

Most importantly, will Maria and all other Romani children have the chance to grow up in a safe, integrated environment free from racism and discrimination?

Europe’s Roma deserve answers. 

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