Why a Little Blonde Girl Living with Roma Parents Has Caught International Attention
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.”
Child Trafficking: A Longstanding Problem in Greece
Lambros Kanellopoulos, the president of the UN children’s agency Unicef in Greece, says that some 3,000 children (Bulgaria, Romania and other Balkan countries) are being transited through Greece by child-trafficking rings. Greek authorities identified only 94 victims in the latest US state department report on human trafficking in 2012.
As Greek newspaper Ekathimerini underscores, baby and child trafficking is a longstanding problem in Greece that authorities have failed to do anything about. Greece’s location and its “ineffective prevention and prosecution procedures” — including convoluted policies that make legal adoption time-consuming — have turned the country into a trafficking hub, says Kanellopoulos. Pregnant women from Bulgaria and other countries are brought into Greece to have children, as a 2006 documentary details:
…Velichka Vicheva, who was 17 at the time, told her father that she would travel to Greece to pick grapes. She gave birth at a hospital in Larissa but the deal between the child-seeking couple and the trafficker was scrapped. Eventually, Vicheva was taken to Athens, where a buyer was found in just one hour.
According to The Economist, a Bulgarian child-trafficking ring broken up by police in 2011 was asking Greek clients to pay €25,000 ($34,000) for a boy and €20,000 for a girl; the child’s mother was to receive a cut of €2,000.
Since Maria was found, Greek police have raided several other Roma camps and detained 24 people. Giorgos Kaminis, the mayor of Athens, has fired the official in charge of the capital’s registry of births and deaths for failing to carry out her duties. Amid reports of benefits fraud, an official has demanded that all birth certificates issued in the past six years be investigated. (In just one example of how poorly birth registrations and benefits are managed in Greece, Dimopoulou was found to have two identities and 14 children, six of whom she claimed to have given birth to within a 14-month period, after she was arrested.)
Unicef’s Kanellopoulos notes that traffickers have often turned to Roma communities as they live “largely under the radar of society.” Greece’s Deputy Interior Minister Leonidas Grigorakos says that he is preparing legislation that would make DNA paternity testing mandatory for children born outside hospitals and that, when Greece takes on the rotating presidency of the E.U. in January of 2014, it will seek to raise the issue of the Roma communities.
Along with the confusion about little Maria, the recent forced deportation of Leonarda Dibrani, a Roma teenager, in front of her French schoolmates, make it too clear why Greece and the E.U. must make the treatment of the Roma, and certainly of their children, a top priority.
As Zeljko Jovanovic, who is Roma, says, whoever she ends up living with, “Maria, like other Roma children, will have to navigate her way through life suffering illiteracy, unemployment, and segregation in education.”
Photo via Thinkstock