Hindu Vivek Kendra
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Roma, Feared as Kidnappers, See Their Own Children at Risk

Author: Dan Bilefsky
Publication: The New York Times
Date: October 28, 2013
URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/26/world/europe/for-the-roma-fears-of-kidnapping-in-europe-only-mirror-their-own.html?_r=1&&pagewanted=all

For centuries across Europe, children were raised on folk tales with a disturbing message: Wander into the woods and you risk being snatched by Gypsies.

Such a warning seems like an anachronism from medieval times. But the stereotype of the child-stealing Gypsy was reawakened in recent days when a Roma couple in Greece were jailed on accusations that they had abducted a blond, green-eyed girl called Maria — or “the blond angel” in the Greek news media. This week, two blond, blue-eyed Roma children were taken from their parents in Ireland after suspicions that they had been abducted, too.

 The children in Ireland were quickly returned to their families after DNA testing confirmed that the Roma were their parents. In Greece, the police confirmed on Friday that Maria was the child of a Roma couple from Bulgaria. An investigation continues into whether Maria was sold, adopted or given to the couple as they have claimed.

 Whatever the outcome, the Roma say that it is they who now live in fear — of having their children snatched for no reason other than their cultural identity or skin color. The cases, they say, have helped fan a sometimes violent backlash against the roughly 11 million Roma scattered across Europe. In an era of budget cutbacks and high unemployment, politicians on both the left and the right have singled out the Roma as emblematic of the problems of illegal immigration and have questioned whether they can ever be integrated.

 “Imagine if the situation were reversed and the children were brown and the parents were white, would they have ever been taken away?” said Dezideriu Gergely, the executive director of the European Roma Rights Center, based in Budapest. “The most dangerous consequence of the hysteria is that now we have to live in fear that our children can be removed from us on the basis of a wrong perception. No one should be profiled on the basis of their ethnicity.”

 Mr. Gergely, a human rights lawyer who has a Roma father and a white Romanian mother, noted that many Roma, who arrived in Europe from India centuries ago and are also known as Gypsies, came from mixed families.

 He himself has light skin and blue eyes, which he said punctured the widespread stereotype that Roma have dark hair and dusky complexions. “It is mystifying that those accused of criminality are seen to represent the Roma community,” he said, noting that if people engaged in human trafficking it was because of severe poverty, not their cultural background. “Applying collective responsibility to the entire Roma community is unacceptable.”

 Despite such warnings, anti-Roma sentiment appears to be spreading., Serbian news media reported this week that a group of skinheads in Novi Sad, Serbia, tried to abduct a Roma child in front of his house last weekend because his skin was fairer than that of his father, Stefan Nikolic.

 In Italy, the anti-immigrant Northern League responded to news of Maria’s supposed abduction this week by demanding inspections of all Roma communities to check for missing children. Gianluca Buonanno, a member of the Northern League in the Italian lower house of Parliament, said he had submitted a petition to the Interior Ministry demanding identification of camp occupants.

 “If it happened in Greece, it could very well happen here in Italy — maybe it’s happening already,” he said in an interview with Repubblica TV, shown on the Web site of the newspaper La Repubblica.

 Even before the cases, rights groups say, violence and intimidation against the Roma were intensifying. Earlier this month, a woman threw acid at a 2-year-old Roma boy and his mother in Naples, according to the European Roma Rights Center. In Hungary, at least seven Roma were killed between 2008 and 2010, and Roma leaders have counted dozens of firebomb attacks in the past.

 In Greece, where the far-right Golden Dawn movement has been fanning anti-immigrant fervor, the head of the Greek Union of Roma, Yiannis Halilopoulos, said the sensational coverage in the Greek news media and the racial profiling that followed the removal of Maria had “taken us back 100 years.”

 “For the first time in years, I hear people shouting ‘Gypsies, thieves!’ when I walk down the street,” he said. He said he had also noticed more aggressive reactions to Roma who beg in the street: “Sometimes they shove them out of the way. I haven’t seen that in a long time.”

 Mr. Halilopoulos said many children in Roma settlements had light skin, blond hair and blue eyes. “What are you going to do? Take them all in because they don’t ‘match’ their parents?” he said. “That’s not racist, that’s stupid.”

 In the Czech Republic, ultraright parties and their neo-Nazi supporters this year have organized about 30 anti-Roma marches, where some have chanted, “Gypsies to the gas chambers,” rights groups said.

 In France, where the Roma issue has flared amid a debate over immigration, the far-right National Front has made the Roma a central issue ahead of municipal elections in March. Its leaders have warned that if Romanians and Bulgarians were allowed to travel in the European Union’s passport-free Schengen Area, the country could see a flood of Roma immigrants.

 This month, President François Hollande intervened after a 15-year-old Roma girl, whose family was living illegally in France for five years, was pulled off a bus by the authorities and expelled to Kosovo. After loud protests, Mr. Hollande agreed to allow the girl to return, but only if she left her family behind.

 Capturing increasing national frustration with the Roma, a prominent story in the April issue of the popular magazine Paris Match showed eight pages of photographs of young Roma pickpockets brazenly targeting tourists at bank machines, Metro stations and museums like the Louvre.

 But Roma advocates counter that if there is crime among some Roma, it is the byproduct of severe economic deprivation and social exclusion that allowed a minority of unscrupulous ringleaders to exploit poor people desperately eking out an existence on society’s fringes.

 Livia Jaroka, 39, an anthropologist who has studied the Roma and is the only Roma member of the European Parliament, noted that many Roma were blighted by poor access to education and difficult health conditions. According to the European Commission, the life expectancy for Roma men in the European Union is 10 years less than the average of 76. Ms. Jaroka, who was born in Hungary, further noted that among the roughly 40 million people who were the most impoverished in Europe, the Roma were disproportionally represented.

 Mr. Gergely, whose musician father worked long days in a restaurant to help pay for his son’s law school education, said such statistics made the necessity for Roma role models imperative. But he said he feared that recent scaremongering about the Roma threatened to push successful Roma underground.

 “Many Roma are very anxious about identifying themselves as Roma, because there is a feeling that if you declare your ethnicity, you might suffer,” he said. “In most cases when Roma succeed, they prefer to remain invisible.”

- Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting from Athens, and Gaia Pianigiani from Rome.
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