Juliet Dunlop: Child removal revives old prejudices

Juliet Dunlop
Juliet Dunlop
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MY MOTHER said that I never should... Play with gypsies in the wood

If I did, she would say

Naughty girl to disobey

Your hair shan’t curl and your shoes shan’t shine,

You gypsy girl, you shan’t be mine.”

Old prejudices die hard. They are like childhood rhymes: learned at an early age, then half-forgotten, but still they beat on, down through the years. Maria, the little girl with blonde hair and blue eyes who was discovered last week in a Roma camp in Greece, reminded me of this old rhyme. It may be of its time but it sums up the fearful, suspicious and racist tone which is still reserved for the Roma community.

Right from the start, the story of this little girl has read like a Central European fairy tale – the cruel and frightening sort, where innocent, flaxen-haired children are spirited away by swarthy beggars and thieves. Headlines such as “Stolen by Gypsies” and “Blonde Angel Kidnapped by Gypsies”, haven’t helped. Maria’s fair looks and pale skin – in contrast with her dark-skinned parents – have been central to the tale.

But the truth is, we still know very little about her. She is five, or maybe six years old; a young girl who belongs to no-one in particular. She is not on Interpol’s list of missing children but pictured alongside the Roma couple who claimed her as their own, it is certainly an unlikely family set-up. The police mug-shot of the group, which has been flashed around the world, has served only to highlight the difference.

Christos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulou are obviously not Maria’s birth parents – DNA tests have proven that they are not – yet she seems to have been part of their family. They insist she was given to them as a baby by a Bulgarian woman who no longer wanted her; that an unofficial adoption took place and that they have cared for her as their daughter. All of this may well be true – many Roma children are brought up within a large extended family - but shortly after Maria was found and before the couple were formally charged, the story was reported as an abduction.

Discrepancies in their story and the lack of documentation have certainly not helped their case, but so far there is nothing to suggest that the little girl has been ill-treated. Footage has emerged of her dancing at a family celebration; of a pink bedroom with toys lined up on a bed. Rumours that she may have been forced to beg on the streets are still only rumours. But Maria will not be returning to the run-down, lawless camp at Farsala where Roma families claim they have been vilified by the media. She has been placed in care and if her natural parents cannot be traced, she will be put up for adoption.

Not surprisingly, the case has sparked concern among the parents of missing children around the world. Maria has already been compared to Madeleine McCann and Ben Needham. In the case of Ben, who disappeared in Kos in 1991, his sister said the discovery had given them hope. They said they had always believed his disappearance was connected to the same camp where Maria was found.

But if finding Maria – if finding is the correct word – has given some families hope, it has already led to the wrongful removal of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl from a Roma community in Dublin. On Monday, a seven-year-old was taken into temporary care. DNA tests have since proved that the couple in question are the child’s parents but it is a worrying development. Removing a child from its home and its parents because it doesn’t look like them is surely not only racist, but the stuff of nightmares.

Of course, Maria’s case is different. A Roma couple have been found with a child who does not in any biological or formal sense, belong to them. It is undoubtedly complicated. But while it has reminded us of the problem of child trafficking in Europe and the poverty that drives it, Maria’s story has also reignited irrational fears - about stolen children and “gypsy-related crime”.

It seems that, in the absence of all the facts, ancient and deeply-held prejudices have been regurgitated. It is a depressing old rhyme and one not worth repeating.