Myth of kidnap of children by particular ethnic groups has a disreputable history

Opinion: If we are judged on how we treat the least fortunate, we have some soul-searching to do

There’s a chain of events that unfolds when a story runs away with itself and few people shout “stop”. On Monday, a seven-year-old Roma girl was taken from her family home in Dublin. On Tuesday, a two-year-old Roma boy was taken from his family in the midlands.

The crimes of these children and their families were that parents and children did not look like each other.

Events in Ireland followed on the heels of the discovery of a girl known as "Maria" during a raid on a Roma camp in Greece. There, the Roma couple claiming to be her parents have been charged with abduction and her biological parents have yet to be found despite a huge international operation.

This chain of events is also a narrative. Truth, nuance, shades of grey and patience are often seen as irritants that journalism just doesn’t have the time to deal with when there’s a scoop to be pursued.

Mick McCaffrey of the Sunday World broke the story, although TV3 was the initial organisation "tipped off" by a member of the public.

The story spread rapidly both here and internationally. At a loss for a photograph, newspapers republished the one of the Greek girl “Maria”. Conversations online and off were in many cases coloured with prejudice against Roma people.

Then the unfortunate truth reared its head to disrupt this “good story”. The boy was returned, and a DNA test revealed the girl to be the biological daughter of her parents, which is what they had insisted all along.

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter said he was anxious that no group be "singled out for unwarranted attention".

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said, "This should not be seen to be about any group or any minority."

Racial profiling
Pavee Point, the Traveller support group, which had been issuing statements since the affair began, talked of racial profiling and "witch hunts". The HSE was instructed to write a report on what had happened, and to give it to the Minister for Justice and the Minister for Children. It was also to be passed on to the Children's Ombudsman.

Abroad the Guardian newspaper called it "an embarrassing U-turn". That is to put it mildly.

Ten million Roma people live in Europe, and there are few places where they are welcomed with open arms. Ireland has a record of treating nomadic people badly, and prejudice against the Traveller community is still common. Across Europe, anti-Roma sentiment
is rife.

Part of this is the by-product of the general interaction people have with Roma people, who are most visible through organised begging in our towns and cities. You have to feel sorry for the young women who seem to be the primary victims of this practice, being shuffled from bridge to bridge, street corner to corner, damp pavement to damp pavement by gruff older men. Instead of addressing the causes of this oppression, we criminalise it. In 2008, Silvio Berlusconi ordered the fingerprinting of 150,000 Roma in Italy.

There is an extra tragedy to the initial “Maria” case happening in Greece, a country that since its financial collapse has been dogged by a terrifying surge in racism orchestrated by the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, which received 7 per cent of the popular vote in the 2012 national elections.

It was only after the murder of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas last month that the party’s leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, and other MPs and party members were arrested.

Blood libel
The myth of a particular ethnic group being behind child kidnapping has been perpetuated in Europe before. The myth of the blood libel, which has ebbed and flowed for the best part of a millennium across Europe, led hysterical Christians to believe that Jewish people were kidnapping young children and using them in ritual sacrifice during Passover.

Even after the Holocaust, such ridiculous accusations continued. In 1946, in Kielce in Poland, 40 Jews were killed by a mob following a false tale of child kidnapping and blood libel.

Last year, there was another story about a Roma girl. The body of Marioara Rostas was found in the Wicklow mountains. She had been abducted in Dublin city centre four years previously and was shot dead. An Irish man was charged with her murder.

Like many Roma people, she lived in poverty here, having come to Dublin only three weeks before she was abducted. The house she lived in with her family, according to RTÉ's Prime Time, had no running water, no sanitation, no electricity and only half a roof.

More than a dozen adults and children lived there.

How can the State provide for Roma families so that they are not living in abject poverty? So that they are not demonised in news reports and dehumanised by the public? So that they are not victims of reactionary police actions as opposed to receiving care and support?

Because if our society is to be judged on how we treat the least fortunate, then we’ve got a lot of soul searching to do.