MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Thu 31-Oct-13 11:13:08

Filip Borev: Ben Needham and Maria - why are Roma people still seen as ‘baby snatching gypsies’?

This week, two cases of suspected child abduction have made headlines - and central to both stories was the role of Roma communities in the alleged crimes. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Maria was removed from her adoptive Roma parents by police, who suspected them of stealing her. In Cyprus, DNA tests were carried out on a 22-year-old Roma man living in Cyprus - authorities suspected he could be Briton Ben Needham, who disappeared on the island of Kos at the age of two.

In this blog, 18-year-old writer and British Romani Filip Borev – who blogs at Pipopotamus - examines what the media reaction to these stories reveals about public prejudice towards Roma people.

Read the blog, and tell us what you think on the thread below.

Lead photo
Filip Borev

Pippopotamus

Posted on

Thu 31-Oct-13 11:13:08

(53 comments)

Maria with Hristos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulou, who she'd been living with.

Since Maria was discovered living in a Roma neighbourhood in Greece, the Roma have been the target of a piercing force of media attention. Maria, with her blonde hair and pale skin, was assumed to be the victim of child abduction. Her carers were detained and she was snatched from the only home, family and culture she had ever known. The story supposedly brought hope - Maria was referred to as the Greek Maddie and it was believed the girl must belong to a grieving white family, desperate to be reunited with their missing daughter. Indeed, the media was quick to point the finger and condemned the entire Romani community as potential child abductors. Yet, a shocking twist to the story soon emerged. Maria the blonde Angel had not been stolen. Rather, the mystery girl was in fact Roma herself. She had not been trafficked, sold or kidnapped she was the daughter of a Bulgarian Roma couple too destitute to bring her up. Given these revelations, then, why has the media continued to refer to Maria in the cases of Ben Needham and Madeleine McCann?

Essentially, we are discussing two entirely separate situations. On the one hand, we have two suspected child abductions; on the other, the failure to adhere to the process of official adoption. Unlike the McCanns, Marias parents were aware of their daughters whereabouts. There is nothing (other than speculation) to suggest that Maria was bought or sold or that she came to any harm. Yet the baby snatching Gypsy stereotype remains. Just days after Marias discovery, two blonde Roma children were seized by the Gardai in Ireland and carted off for DNA testing. Both were proven to be the biological children of their parents - victims of racist speculation and guesswork. Whats more, their ordeal marked the start of a media witchhunt against the Romani people.

It seems perfectly acceptable to find 'brown' Roma children living in an impoverished slum, but deeply shocking to discover a 'blonde angel' amid the destitution that blights the lives of the Romani people.

The suspected abduction of Ben Needham, a 21-month-old boy who disappeared from the island of Kos in 1991, has long been linked to the Roma. Again, this connection has been built on speculation alone: there has never been any evidence to suggest that Ben was abducted by the Roma. Nevertheless, his family has this week described how the discovery of Maria - a Roma child who was informally adopted - has brought them hope. Predictably, photographs soon appeared of a fair-haired man thought to be living in a Roma community in Cyprus. The media was whipped into a frenzy had they, at long last, discovered an actual Gypsy abduction? The answer was, yet again, no. The young man in question handed himself in to authorities in Cyprus. His DNA results came back negative.

After four suspected abductions are proven false in just two weeks, just why are the media maintaining their futile accusations against the Roma? I suspect the media are bitterly disappointed by the outcome of Maria’s story – a case that was built on skin colour alone. A white Roma child deeply unsettles the notion of ‘whiteness’. Maria’s story made headlines because of the privileges that are associated with white skin. It seemed perfectly acceptable to find ‘brown’ Roma children living in an impoverished slum, but deeply shocking to discover a ‘blonde angel’ amongst the destitution that blights the lives of the Romani people. Upon learning that Maria was indeed Roma; her skin colour remained paramount to her future. She was not returned to her family - instead she remains in the care of a charity, possibly facing a future of institutions. Her Romani blood does not fit with conceptions of whiteness and now she has been thrust into a society that is so intolerant of the Romani people, she is certain to be stripped of her cultural identity.

With the media now uninterested in pursuing the story of a little Roma girl who is the victim of poverty, they have instead turned their attention to children more deserving of their time - Ben Needham and Madeleine McCann. What will become of little Maria, well likely never know; we will, however, no doubt be swamped with further hearsay and speculation about 12 million Romani people suspected of being prolific child abductors. As with all ethnicities there are good and bad people - some may be child abductors, but the majority are not. There are wicked people from all walks of life and to narrow the search for a missing child to one community holds very little benefit. Im not a parent and I do not know the pain of losing a child, yet one thing I know for certain is that the Needhams and McCanns answers wont be found in a futile Roma witchhunt.

By Filip Borev

Twitter: @pipogypopotamus

EarthMither Thu 31-Oct-13 16:48:44

I just wanted to thank Filip for this post, and also to thank MNHQ for hosting it - very thought-provoking. I read Filip's blog on a regular basis, and think he does an excellent job of advocating for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller rights, and in promoting greater understanding between the GRT and settled communities. Keep up the good work Filip.

quietlysuggests Thu 31-Oct-13 17:34:10

You are just 18? Wow, your clarity of thought and measured argument is allows no argument - you are right. Thank you.

Jakebullet Thu 31-Oct-13 17:44:52

Thank you for posting what I was thinking but unable to really put into woirds adequately.

Great post, thank you.

I am concerned that there seems to be a concerted witch hunt against Roma people at the moment. They are being blamed for a lot of society's ills, and stealing children is the repetition of an old, old slur.

It's all so sad. Rather than focusing on the widespread racism and discrimination Roma people are suffering at the moment we are focusing on fairy stories and monster tales.

I have a little blonde girl and I find the 'angel' stuff very disturbing. It is like my DD is worth more in terms of child protection because of the way she looks. Deeply worrying.

I agree that you are a wonderful writer Filip.

FreeAtLastAtLongLast Thu 31-Oct-13 19:43:10

Filip, a great post, and I'm looking forward to reading your blog. So much mainstream racism floating around, it seems that racism towards Roma is the last acceptable (in law and on the street) racism.

Here's to the many wonderful, committed and fiercely protective Roma mums that I've met. Mainstream society could learn so much from them thanks

edam Thu 31-Oct-13 20:05:00

Very thought-provoking. Thanks for posting your blog here Filip.

Pistillate Thu 31-Oct-13 20:26:03

Great blog, filip borev, and I am so glad to see such sensible stuff written at last... I have been fuming about the way this has been reported in the media. There are blonde Roma, paler and darker Roma, just like there are variations in any ethnic group. Why do the media want different groups to be defined so narrowly? It's so divisive, and like pipopotMus says, it's really tough if you don't look like you belong to your family.

DrankSangriaInThePark Spain Thu 31-Oct-13 20:39:36

That's it, isn't it Free- because it's "only" Roma, and because it's always been the stuff of legend, it's somehow still OK to be racist about the people.

Replace the word Roma with "black" or "Irish" and wait for the outcry.

Also very true and thought-provoking about the "blonde angel" element. Only last week on the threads about this, there were the kneejerk comments about her looks. And whoop-de, she turns out to be Roma herself and had that terrified look on her face not because she'd been abducted by Roma but because she'd been dragged away from her "adoptive" parents.

I was left open-mouthed at an (Italian) interview on TV last night- the politician accepted that it was wrong to accuse the Roma of child-stealing but said "however, they are all thieves and live off the fact that they are all thieves".

Filip- you may not have seen/heard this, but similar to the Ben Needham case, the Italians are now churning out (again) the hypothesis that 2 missing Italian children, Denise Pipitone and Angela Celentano, were also taken by Roma.

What I wonder, at a societal level, can be done to challenge this view? Sadly, very little I think.

A great blog post Filip, and I wish you well with your writing. smile

FantasticDay Thu 31-Oct-13 20:49:30

Another.post to commend this powerful piece - and your excellent pipopotamus blog.

JacqueslePeacock Thu 31-Oct-13 21:06:30

This is an excellent post. I agree wholeheartedly.

DoubleLifeIsALifeOfSorts Thu 31-Oct-13 22:08:00

Alot of parallels to the way Jews were scapegoated in the middle ages... Those foreigners who look different from 'us', have their own cultural identity and have been living amongst us for hundreds of years... The Jews got blamed for the plague amongst other things. And the Roma are evil child snatchers.

THese are base fears that should have been wiped out around the time we got more civilized (like, after the middle ages). Shocking that there wasn't an outcry when the media reported this in the first place

Shitemum Thu 31-Oct-13 22:30:35

I lived in the south of Spain for 19 years in an area where Romany families traditionally lived. On many occasions I saw Romany families with fair haired children. At the time I never thought -Oh, that can't be their child, they must have stolen it', but rather 'Oh, that's must be where the myth of the 'child-stealing Gypsies' comes from - their children are sometimes quite fair haired when very young.

Marylou2 Fri 01-Nov-13 01:20:55

I have two first hand experiences of Roma people. One lady approached me on a car park when I was pregnant and threatened to "curse" me and my unborn child unless I gave her money. I was terrified and ended up giving her £20. The second was a camp of Roma who parked near my companies HQ and threw a brick at my windscreen as I drove into work.

FreeAtLastAtLongLast Fri 01-Nov-13 06:57:13

MaryLou don't forget about all the Roma you interact with on a daily basis, whose ethnicity isn't obvious confused

Marylou2 Fri 01-Nov-13 07:17:53

Oh well hey, that makes it OK then!

FreeAtLastAtLongLast Fri 01-Nov-13 07:22:56

Just reminding you of the bigger picture. I've had many interactions with Roma and haven't once been threatened. At times Roma have made up approx 30% of my weekly interactions. In the last decade I've been a victim of crime a few times, but never from a Roma.

DrankSangriaInThePark Spain Fri 01-Nov-13 07:23:54

MaryLou2, both nasty experiences, but what is your point?

I was mugged by a Roma girl in Florence years ago.
I was mugged by a scaggy Manchester girl and held at knifepoint by a scaggy Manchester bloke.
My downstairs (Italian) neighbour apparently cursed me. Not Roma as far as I know. Just an ad hoc fortune teller......

The plural of anecdote isn't data remember.....

Marylou2 Fri 01-Nov-13 08:02:11

Sorry I shared my experience. I see the bullies are out in force.Goodbye.

EarthMither Fri 01-Nov-13 08:08:59

Challenging prejudice and querying sweeping generalisations does not equal "bullying". Perhaps you need to do some more reading around this topic.

DrankSangriaInThePark Spain Fri 01-Nov-13 08:20:58

Don't be so silly Marylou.

And please don't derail an interesting and thought-provoking (hopefully) blog post with name-calling just because (thankfully) the vast majority of people don't agree with your prejudices.

Jakebullet Fri 01-Nov-13 08:59:10

Marylou, you met two crappy people who happened to be Roma. Have you never been victim of a crime from non-Roma people. I know I have......and the behaviours I see from drunken youngsters in a Saturday night tells me you cannot generalise about any one race.

On the other hand I once drove past a gypsy camp and a young lad spat at my car.......the whole camp must therefore be awful people eh? hmm

Jakebullet Fri 01-Nov-13 09:01:13

Marylou, you met two crappy people who happened to be Roma. Have you never been victim of a crime from non-Roma people. I know I have......and the behaviours I see from drunken youngsters in a Saturday night tells me you cannot generalise about any one race.

On the other hand I once drove past a gypsy camp and a young lad spat at my car.......the whole camp must therefore be awful people eh? hmm

And arf @"bullies" ....did you mean the people who had a different opinion and challenged your prejudices?

sara11272 Fri 01-Nov-13 09:13:02

An interesting blog, and a perspective I hadn't really considered before, so thank you.

I do think, though, that the shock at Maria was less about 'how awful for a blonde child to be living in this squalor' and more about 'how awful that a child who has potentially been taken from her rightful parents and life is instead living in this squalor' - which is a different issue.

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