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.
Posted on: Thu 31-Oct-13 11:13:08
(53 comments )
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
"Us gipsies don't steal babies, whatever they may tell you when you're naughty. We've enough of our own mostly." From Five Children and It.
E Nesbit wrote this in 1902. I don't think our views on the Roma have moved on in over a century.
Great article, well written and thought out. I also can't believe you are only 18!
I hope someone is campaigning to get Maria back to her adoptive parents if she was happy there.
I have just watched this documentary today. It's very interesting and it puts a slightly more realistic slant on things than our young blogger friend, I think.
I admire his passion but I think he's rather blinkered.
Do watch all of it if you have a spare hour - don't just comment after watching ten minutes.
The case of this little girl is deeply troubling to me. My personal feeling is that she absolutely should be returned to her adoptive parents and her situation regularised. Her birth parents evidently trusted them enough to look after her and they seem to have done as good a job as they can in their precarious situation. Unless they have concerns about her welfare in the encampment where she found the kindest thing to do for her would be to return her to there and the only people she knows. It just smacks rather a lot of what happened in Aboriginal settlements in Australia (cf Rabbit Proof Fence)
Bloody hell that is shocking - silly really I don't know why that's shocked me more than anything else, I guess because it's so institutionalized, blatant... Special schools... Ugh!
The primary school I went to had kids who just staged for a term whilst traveling, they 'fitted in' just bloody fine, (caveat: no idea what ethnicity they were as was v young at the time)
Off to google more on this...
My brother and his wife both have dark hair/dark eyes although DB's hair and eyes are a shade or two lighter than me or my other brother's. Thanks to a strong blonde/blue-eyed gene in Dad's family they have a daughter with these features. She is completely blonde/blue eyed. This case has me slightly worried that the same could potentially happen to them, at least at the accusatory stage.
Sunshine - it's isn't really spoken about, much like we don't discuss which African nations were affected or which American Indigenous nations were also enslaved. Portugal particularly bought thousands and thousands of Roma from Eastern Europe (where they were enslaved for quite a while previous) and sent them to their colonies, enslaved, and traded them with other enslaved populations so they ended up in many areas around the world. Actually, their history of early marriage for girls is traced back directly to the slave trade (because unmarried girls were worth a lot more and for many enslavers would be the ones they grabbed, they were very rarely "real" marriages in a physical sense for years and years, but the paperwork that they were married was barrier to them being stolen). A lot of their story is ignored. It's quite painful that they get blamed and labeled as child snatchers as Roma history is partially built upon the pain of having their children stolen by those in power.
Double - Because they are Roma and their parents aren't educated enough to otherwise fight or support them to challenge it. Perpetuating a cycle of poverty and oppression. The governments often claim it's because they can't fit in or socialize in mainstream school, but really they are never given a chance and in places where they are denied citizenship, they can be denied formal education altogether. A lot of people are fighting this, but it is a real struggle that is being ignored for fairytales.
Special schools? On what grounds would they do that? And why?
Spork I didn't realise Roma were enslaved as part of the Atlantic slave trade, it's shocking that their story isn't told.
If Greece or Bulgaria allowed Roma children to have a normal education rather than extremely substandard separate education for them, then maybe they could lift themselves out of poverty. But they don't. Even for the Roma living outside of the ghettos, their children are pretty much all placed in special schools purely for being Roma to keep them out of mainstream education.
No child should be living in squalor, but the Convention on the Rights of the Child - which all of Europe is signed up to - does not allow children to be taken away purely on the grounds of poverty (or ethnicity), the state is meant to ensure families have the ability to support them. But Greece, Bulgaria, pretty much all of the Eastern Europe legally segregate and refuse such things to its Roma citizens (and some even try to deny them citizenship, which denies them any said rights). They should be brought to account on their illegal and disgusting treatment which results in these children and their families living in legally enforced squalor.
Maybe the point is that no children should be living in such squalor? The Roma have been subjected to prejudice for centuries and the way the media responded inflamed the issue (as it probably meant to). There are good and bad in every community but we should have got past assuming 'others' evil based on isolated incidents. What does concern me is that children are being used to beg (as 'Maria' reportedly was) and aren't in school getting an education that will,hopefully, lift them out of poverty.
Not forgetting the 1000s of Roma children that were taken from their parents in the 20th century and adopted out, because they were Roma.
Over 60 years ago, the Roma arrived at the family farm. They adored my Mum who was only about 18 months old. They asked my Grandmother for her and she agreed to hand my Mum over the next day. When they came to collect her, my Aunty clutched her sister protectively and refused to hand her over. My Uncles also refused to let her go. The Roma left empty handed saying they could see Mum was loved by her siblings. The point is though, they ASKED for her, they didn't take her. How many children were "taken" by Roma early last century, because their parents were too poor to care for them so it was easier to say "oh the gypos took them" instead of admitting they handed them over willingly?
It is surprising to see the depths of racism towards the Roma that these cases have uncovered. I, personally, find it really unsettling to see. I'm black, (but along with with my white partner), have managed to produce 2 blond, blue eyed little boys with olive skin. When we go through passport controls, I let my husband take the children. Mostly because I get quizzed and held up - what's his date of birth? where was he born? how old is he? what are his middle names? etc. - I shrug it off because trafficking exists and they are just doing their job. But these stories still make me super uncomfortable and send a shiver down my spine.
Babc it is 'othering'. I'm not saying that its ok.
My intention isn't to minimise, deny or dismiss any of the injustices and mistreatment of Roma people. And I don't for one moment think that the neighbours who reported Maria or the child in Ireland were motivated by anything but prejudice.
I'm just saying that I believe that the original 'child snatcher' myth is born out of a need to believe that disappeared children weren't suffering or dead.
Thank you for this blog post. I know almost nothing about aroma culture - am going to head to Filip 's blog.
Helpyourself - if a White couple had a child that looked nothing like them, do you think the police would instantly take that child prior to investigation and then look through the homes of all surrounding White families to ensure all their children looked like them? Do you think the news would be filled with stories of problems with White people and commenters full of disparaging comments against White people they've encountered who were thieves or violent (and mixing them up with similarly slurred people - the slur that contains several ethnicity groups, some related and many not so). The original search of the area Maria was found in was based on prejudice and disadvantage, the media's treatment of it firmly placed within it, and the current events dealing Maria and her siblings are solely because of it.
Maria's biological parents have now had several of their other children now taken away because of the investigation into Maria (against the Convention of the Rights of the Child which both Bulgaria and Greece are signed up to and have both broken in regards to the Roma children in their countries, and Bulgaria in the taking of these children for nothing other than poverty and their ethnicity).
The reason that Roma and many other peoples are still slurred and put other myths is because the representation of people within these groups is out of their control and hasn't moved on in centuries, and people within these groups are still legally disadvantage (there are still countries where being Roma is essentially illegal) to the point that making their own representation is difficult. Even in the age of the internet and in Western countries, Roma have a great difficulty getting heard, their stories completely ignored in media and in education which then breeds problems in social and legal situations.
I mean, Roma are still hardly recognised as Holocaust victims despite having lost 90% of their population to it, their enslavement in Eastern Europe and sold into slavery alongside many others in the atlantic slave trade ignored in history books, and their current plight as one of the most targetted populations for the modern slave trade and traffiking because the people who actually do this know that the police ignore when they call for help. Recognised as one of the most impoverished populations in Europe, they still have the blame put on them for everything and the legalised hate is ignored - walled ghettos are being put up and they are still ignored even while we remember and cry "never again", it's brushed aside with vicious fictitious stories built by those who wanted to oppress them and spread without a second thought by the media.
But isn't that still "othering" the Roma, Helpyourself? These are real people who've had their adoptive child taken away from them, not players in a comforting fairy tale for us non-Roma parents.
Great blog post, thank you.
Without wishin to minimise the real prejudice and disadvantage of the Roma, I'm not sure that this is an example of it.
The disappearing child is a mythical saw of all societies. That the child is living with happily with another family is a better outcome than dead or trafficked.
I see the 'stolen by gypsies' story as a comforting fairy tale- the only comforting resolution of every parent's worse nightmare.
I was very disturbed by the media reports of this case.
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