Guilty Until Proven Innocent – Maria and the Roma witch hunt

Over the past two weeks the Roma have been at the centre of a media storm. Maria – the ‘blonde angel’ – was discovered living in a Roma neighbourhood in Greece. Acting on speculation alone, the child was seized and her ‘parents’ detained. More shocking than the discovery of a white child, was the media coverage that followed. Without evidence or rationality, the media denounced not only Maria’s carers, but the entire Romani population, as child abductors, abusers and traffickers. Yet, in a twist of fate it was uncovered that Maria had not been abducted after all. The white ‘mystery girl’ was in fact Roma – the daughter of a poverty stricken, Bulgarian Roma couple. There was no abduction and no transaction. In fact, the only child abductors in this story are the Greek authorities themselves.Since the day that Maria was taken, this story has been about race. It was not the poverty and deprivation of her Roma neighbourhood that gave the Greek police cause for concern. Rather, their interest in her welfare arose only from the colour of her skin. It has become evident from this case that white people are still viewed as a purer and more deserving race. In a case of suspected child trafficking, only one child was removed and subjected to DNA testing. The thirteen other children registered to Maria’s carers did not make headlines, nor were there any concerns raised for their welfare. The impoverished and supposedly ‘abusive’ conditions, in which they were living, were deemed unacceptable only for Maria.

It has since transpired that Maria is not white – or at least does not sit easily within traditional notions of ‘whiteness’. She is Roma and an inheritor of the albinism gene. This was not abduction, but an ‘unofficial’ adoption. The only crime committed was a failure to complete paperwork. Yet, this has been problematic for the media who were so convinced that Maria was a ‘Greek Maddie’ waiting to be reunited with her privileged and loving white family. So absorbed by the colour of her skin, they remain unable to consider the ‘blonde angel’ as part of the Romani people, whom which they so vehemently despise. Instead, the media and the authorities have insisted that the little girl is not returned to the community in which she has grown up and have called for her to be adopted – presumably by a white family who will erase any traces of her Romani heritage.

The case of Maria will have lasting ramifications for Europe’s Romani people. It will be remembered for exposing ‘baby snatching’ Gypsies, yet, what will not be remembered is that Maria is Roma and a victim of poverty, not abduction. As the wrongful removal and DNA testing of two blonde haired Roma children, in Ireland, has shown, the Romani people are now viewed with even more suspicion than before – considered guilty until proven innocent. Events over the past two weeks have only added to the masses of stereotypes and prejudices that already exist about the Romani people. What is more, the media’s bigoted and overtly racist coverage of the case has reinforced the idea that it is perfectly acceptable to discriminate against the Romani people.
This implication is worrying given the growing hostility towards the Roma in the UK. Fuelled by UKIP and the Daily Mail, there has been much debate about a largely hypothetical Roma invasion. With restrictions on Bulgaria and Romania’s EU membership coming to an end in 2014, it has been predicted that the UK will see a wave of immigration. The media attention has largely concentrated on the Roma population and has perpetuated the myth that the Roma will come en masse to ‘steal’ social housing, jobs, and welfare benefits. Indeed, this is the same rhetoric used in the wider immigration debate in which immigrants are automatically viewed with suspicion.  

What these recent cases have shown is that speculation alone is enough for the authorities take drastic action against ethnic minorities. The two Roma children, in Ireland, who were snatched from their families, were subjected to DNA testing due to ‘tip-offs’ from members of the public. This witch hunt would not be out of place in 1940s Germany where citizens were encouraged to denounce their Jewish neighbours. This same mentality is alive and well in modern day Britain, in which the state actively and visibly hunts suspected illegal immigrants with ‘Go Home’ vans and celebratory tweets every time ‘illegals’ are rounded up. We live in a society where we are encouraged to snoop on our ‘ethnic’ neighbours and the Roma, and their children, are next in the firing line.

What the Maria case has highlighted is that racism towards the Roma people is still considered acceptable by people from all walks of life. Indeed, many commentators did challenge this but the blatantly racist coverage of the case was domineering. In a poll, during BBC’s ‘Sunday Morning Live’, just 22% of voters agreed that the Roma were unfairly stigmatised. The remaining 78%, therefore, believed that there is something ‘fair’ about stigmatising 12 million people. This is a worrying reflection of Britain’s attitude towards the Romani people. The Roma, who do come to the UK in 2014, will arrive with the hope that their lives will improve. Instead, they will be greeted by a society who deems it fair for them to be stigmatised. They will be another minority to be vilified, blamed, and scapegoated, yet, unlike other minorities there will be very few people willing to stand up for this much unwanted race. 

Pip Borev