Europe's Favorite Scapegoats

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Greek Police / AFP / Getty Images

A Greek police photo of Maria, the 4-year-old taken from a Roma couple in October.

It is remarkable how much damage one photograph can do. A bewildered little girl just wrenched from her home frowns awkwardly into the camera from beneath her pigtails — and the image revives centuries-old racial stereotypes with shocking speed and casualness across much of Europe.

But when Greek police on Oct. 18 published photographs of a girl named Maria, whom they had found living in a Greek Roma camp with a couple who were not her parents, many people looked at her blond hair, pale skin and blue eyes and assumed she was a non-Roma child abducted by the darker-skinned couple pictured sitting either side of her in a police station. Newspapers around the world published headlines about the "blond angel" who had been "kidnapped."

A week later, DNA tests confirmed what the Roma couple, Christos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulou, had been saying all along: Maria's mother was a desperately poor Bulgarian Roma woman who had given birth while working in Greece. With seven other children — some of them blond, like many Roma — in Bulgaria, Maria's mother could not afford to look after the baby and left her behind.

But the damage was done: the Roma had been collectively cast, as they have so often in their history, as baby snatchers and traffickers. The slander was both unfair and inaccurate. Since they began a slow migration from India to Europe around the 7th century, the Roma have far more often been the victims of serious crimes than the perpetrators.

If 4-year-old Maria does, as expected, return to Bulgaria, statistics from the European Roma Rights Centre suggest her future there will not be bright. Roma in Bulgaria account for 10% of the population, but their children make up 63% of the youngsters in institutional care. They are estimated to account for up to 80% of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation in Bulgaria. More than two-thirds of Roma in Bulgaria live in segregated communities, attending segregated schools where they receive a poor education.

These dismal statistics, repeated across Europe, are a result of centuries of persecution. Starting in the Habsburg Empire in the 18th century, the forced removal of Roma children by the state from their parents was part of misguided "assimilation" programs designed to eradicate Roma culture. In World War II a quarter of the Roma population in Europe was killed by the Nazis, who deemed them "racially inferior." State-sponsored eugenics programs lasted well into the 20th century. Indeed, cases of medical staff coercing Roma women to undergo sterilization were still being reported in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary at the start of the last decade.

Under communist rule, Roma in East European countries were often pushed into segregated neighborhoods, where most of them still live today. This has resulted in a cycle of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. Where the state has failed, both Roma and non-Roma criminal gangs have moved in, taking advantage of a group vulnerable — because of poverty and a lack of government protection — to trafficking for sexual exploitation, forced begging and illegal adoption. On very rare occasions, according to activists working with Roma, desperate women have been coerced or duped into giving up a child for money. But as Ivan Ivanov, a Bulgarian Roma with the European Roma Information Office, points out, "There are millions of Roma living in poverty, but they are not all selling their children."

Reversing the centuries of discrimination against Europe's estimated 10 million Roma would take long-term investment in social programs, education and housing from governments across the continent. That is not going to happen anytime soon. Europe's economic crisis has left governments with shrinking social-welfare budgets. Hard times have boosted support for far-right parties. From Norway to Greece, groups peddling hate speech about Roma have thrived.

The Maria case has shone some light on the scandal of racial profiling and segregation that is allowed to exist in Europe in the 21st century. The danger is that interest in the injustices the Roma face will fade as quickly as the continent's outpouring of concern over Maria after it emerged that she was not, after all, the stolen child of a white couple.