The case of a young blonde girl discovered in a Roma township in Greece has captured the public imagination in the country and beyond, with more than 8,000 calls to the charity sheltering her and Interpol hunting for the parents of "Maria," aged just 4.
The girl’s guardians have been charged with abduction after DNA tests showed they were not related, but fellow Roma in London told Metro the case has been misunderstood.
“The family are responsible," said Andrei, a Romanian living with a group of travelers in the city center. “If [the girl's family doesn't] want to look after the child, why shouldn’t someone else?”
Andrei said it was normal in his community to take in abandoned children, and said he had done it "once or twice," including "children from different (non-Roma) backgrounds.” The traveler would not say exactly how such children were adopted, but denied it was kidnapping and dismissed such interpretations as racism.
However, the Athens charity Smile of the Child, which is keeping "Maria," claims the girl was forced to dance and beg for the Roma, exploiting the cute appearance that has seen her tagged the “Blonde Angel." Director Costas Yannopoulos said she was kept in appalling conditions and suggested "Maria" had been trafficked from Scandinavia.
“It’s not regular, but children are taken either for welfare payments or to work," Andreea Bostan, a community worker who has spent several years working with Roma, told Metro. "This is a typical case, in many cases older girls are used to lure younger ones, and they can become prostitutes.”
But civil rights activists called for calm as fears of a backlash grow.
“Police are already raiding Roma camps far from Farsala and blaming the whole community for this one action," said Kostas Diamantis, who works with the Panhellenic Association of Greek Roma. “It’s a long time since we heard of a case like this and if it was happening regularly we would know.”
Diamantis said that Roma are increasingly segregated from mainstream Greek society and that a growing number of schools are refusing to educate Roma children. The “Blonde Angel” is likely to push the community still further into the shadows.
Who are the Roma?
- Roma, or gypsies, are a traveler community that originated in India over 1,000 years ago.
- There are up to 12 million in the world today but accuracy is limited.
- The majority live in Eastern and Central Europe.
- The community is under fire in many countries, notably France, Italy and Hungary, where they are accused of criminality and failure to integrate.