Girl’s plight in Greece sets claims of rights against racism fear
Some see salvation for the ‘Roma’ girl taken into custody, but others are angry
Children from a Roma community at a settlement north of Athens. Photograph: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images
Her story was splashed on front pages and dominated news sites for days, captivating parents whose greatest fear is the abduction of their children.
However, Maria – the young blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl found living with a Roma couple in Greece who claimed, but were proven not to be, her biological parents – also offered a rare insight into a significant and much discriminated minority in Greece, which numbers about 265,000 people or 2.5 per cent of the total population.
Most live in settlements on the outskirts of Greek cities, towns and villages, some in solid houses of bricks and mortar – like Maria and her Roma family – but many in huts constructed of discarded wood and plastic sheeting.
Although they insist that they received her willingly from a Bulgarian Roma couple shortly after her birth, the couple Maria knew as her parents are now in custody accused of child abduction, while she has been placed in the care of one of Greece’s most prominent children’s charities.
Since receiving her, the charity’s director has painted an idyllic image of the life she now leads compared with what he says was the environment of neglect she experienced under her supposed Roma parents.
“She’s happy because probably for the first time she’s got the care and tenderness that a child needs in this age. She has toys to play with and people to take care for her,” says Costas Yannopoulos of Smile of the Child. But when pressed if evidence exists that she was mistreated by her purported parents, Yannopoulos avoids going into detail, saying that his charity has received reports of sightings and photographs, which he says he has passed on to the police, of Maria being “exposed to begging” in various parts of Greece.
After her Roma relatives released videos of the girl dancing at community festivals and ceremonies, in a way that children of her age in Greece and elsewhere are prone to do, Yannopoulos, in comments to the Daily Mail, interpreted the footage as showing “her dancing, going round and round like a little trained bear” for money.
“This argument is now coming up that they took care of her. But whatever they did, it was against the law, was against the child’s protection and the child’s dignity,” he says, adding he believes Maria’s case to be part of a much wider European problem.
“In Dublin, you have a similar situation with Romanian and Bulgarian women that expose children in the streets. It should be tackled like this because these children are exposed like Maria to a form of slavery. It’s a whole system, a business system, that is exploiting children,” he says, arguing that only some “gypsies”, as he refers to Roma, are engaged in this.
“We have gypsies who are working in the fields, who have families and love their children. But there some gypsies who are following another track. They see the camps as a closed circuit where they can deal drugs and other illegal activities.”
To underline that she’s happier now than before, Yannopoulos points out that, unlike other children taken into care, she has not asked for her “so-called parents”. But Maria only speaks the Roma language of her adoptive parents. When asked if an interpreter has been engaged to help her communicate, Yannopoulos says: “No, because we didn’t risk it. But she has managed to learn a lot of Greek in these days and to communicate through paintings and her dolls.”
The way Maria’s case has been dealt with in general, and in particular Yannopoulos’s comments to the press about the Roma, has angered advocacy groups in Greece.
Human rights activist Panayote Dimitras says they draw on a catalogue of racist stereotypes and language targeting the Roma.
While he insists that there is a “valid case” that the couple who Maria believed were her parents illegally registered her and engaged in benefit fraud for non-existent children, “the charge of abduction exists because they are Roma and this is absolutely and totally racist”.
“No one has claimed their child was abducted,” he adds, pointing out that Interpol confirmed this week that no one matching Maria’s DNA is in their database of missing persons.
“When you are Roma in Greece, you are guilty until proven innocent,” he says, describing the situation of Roma in Greece to be “the worst” in the European Union.
Maria’s story has angered and unsettled many Roma, says Maria Kratz Larsen, whose Children’s Ark Roma Education charity offers after-school care to children at a Roma settlement outside the city of Corinth in the hope of educating the next generation.
“This morning I was talking to a man who has blond-haired twins, who I can guarantee are his. But he asked me whether they will be next.”