On October 17, Greek authorities took a young girl into custody. She had been living in a Roma camp in Farsala in central Greece that police had raided on suspicion of drug activity. The child, who is being called Maria (and who dental records suggest is 5-6 years old) attracted the attention of authorities due to having blond hair and green eyes.
DNA tests revealed that she is not related to the Roma couple, Christos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulou, who she had been living with. Maria was placed with a charity, Smile of the Child, who subsequently received thousands of emailed photos of children that closely resembled her; she was said to have only “uttered just a few words in Greek and Roma dialect.”
Greek police worked with Interpol to check for a match to Maria’s DNA. Within a few days, a Roma couple living in Bulgaria was located and DNA tests proved that the woman, Sashka Ruseva, is indeed Maria’s mother.
While it’s become clear who Maria’s biological parents are, what will happen to the little girl next is still very much up in the air. Authorities are trying to determine whether Maria was sold or not. Salis and Dimopoulou had produced a birth certificate for Maria, but this was found to be forged; they said that Maria had been given to them. Both have been arrested and charged with abducting a minor; they are being held in jail until their trial. Their lawyer has said that a legal team will fight to get Maria back to them.
Along with some of their children, Ruseva and her husband were interviewed on Bulgaria’s TV7 on Thursday. ”We gave her, we gifted her, without money. I didn’t take any money. I didn’t have any food to give to the kid,” Ruseva said. While both Greek and Bulgarian authorities think that Ruseva met Salis and Dimopoulou and passed Maria to them directly, Ruseva denies ever meeting the Greek Roma couple.
Racial Profiling and the Roma
The discovery of Maria has highlighted what experts say is the “huge problem” of child and baby trafficking in Greece. It has also raised concerns about racial profiling of the Roma. After Maria was found in Greece, Irish authorities took a 7-year-old blonde-haired girl from a Roma family in the Tallaght suburb of Dublin, but DNA tests then showed that she was living with her biological parents and family.
Dezideriu Gergely, head of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center, says that “Not all Roma communities have dark skin: there are Roma who have light skin and green eyes.” He also notes that it is not unusual for Roma children to be raised by their extended families and in particular by grandparents, while adding that it is rare for children not to be brought up by their biological relatives.
Both Gergely and Siobhan Curran, Roma project co-ordinator at the Pavee Point travellers and Roma center in Ireland, emphasize that any notion that there is a connection between the Roma and child trafficking must be challenged. Says Gergely, who is concerned that “old hatreds and myths of babies being stolen” could come back to life:
It’s true the Roma are a vulnerable group because of extreme poverty, low income and low levels of education. But it’s not related to cultural factors or to do with the Roma community, let’s say, getting involved in trafficking.
Europe’s Roma population is estimated to be as high as 10-12 million; 95 percent live in settled communities. The European Union has tried to have all members of Roma communities formerly registered since the 1990s, but many people still are “clearly beyond the system.”
Photo via Thinkstock
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