Maria and the Gypsy couple whose care she was found in.
Hysterical and unfounded fears of Gypsies stealing babies spread through Ireland this week, which led to the police taking children away from two separate Roma families. The police turned out to be the only child snatchers in these cases, which were the culmination of years of growing anti-Roma sentiment that at every point politicians—and sometimes the press—have perpetuated rather than prevented.
The Roma community has long been Europe’s whipping boys and girls. They are the last minority group that it is safe for ostensibly respectable politicians to openly attack. Despite the dark legacy of the Porajmos, the Nazi's extermination of as many as 1.5 million Romani during World War II, in Europe it has never become taboo to repeat centuries-old slurs about their culture.
This particular round of Gypsy hate started last week in Greece, where a child named Maria with blonde hair and blue eyes was found living with Gypsies who were not her real parents. Immediately, the centuries-old myth of Gypsy kidnappings was reborn. The parents of missing blonde children lined up to say they had found new hope from the case because Gypsies could have taken their child. The idea is as discredited as the blood libel against Jews—that they used Christian children in rituals—but people still like to trot the lie out every so often.
Today, it was confirmed that the child in Greece actually is Roma, that her parents are from Bulgaria, and that her mother gave her away because she was too poor to raise her. But this is unlikely to stall the momentum of a continent-spanning anti-Roma news narrative. The story came just after French president Francois Hollande revealed his nasty side by deporting the parents and siblings of a Roma girl who'd been seized from a school bus. After protests, the girl was offered a chance to return to France without her parents, who were back home in Serbia, being violently attacked. Domestically, the Daily Mail had us all very concerned about six—yes, six—homeless Roma who had been flown from the UK back to Romania, only to have the gall to return to live in a public park.
In my home of Ireland, with its unfortunate history of prejudice against Roma, the panic about events in Greece led to a pretty shameful 24 hours. Two Gypsy children were removed from their Roma parents by police, held overnight, and given DNA tests to make sure they belonged to their parents.
The tip off to Irish police came from TV3 journalist Paul Connolly, who had received a Facebook message from a stranger warning that "There is also little girl living in Roma house in Tallaght and she is blond and blue eye” [sic] before going on to repeat racist myths about the Roma community. Connolly's frustrated hour-long investigation, "Bogus Beggars," failed to identify any links between Gypsies and organized criminal networks and was called as an "embarrassing shambles, which shames TV3." So, perhaps the police should have taken his info with a grain of salt. Despite the parents producing a passport and birth certificate, cops took the child away. (Interestingly, the family’s house has CCTV and clear, protective plastic over its windows, but the international press did not descend on the doorstep to ask what attacks may have warranted such security measures.)
In Athlone, Ireland, a separate tip-off from a member of the public led to a two-year-old boy being taken and held overnight for a DNA test—he too had fairer features than his family.
A Roma pride march in Budapest last week. Photo courtesy of Redjade.
Romani people being the victims of a Nazi extermination campaign doesn’t put them above criticism, but the bar for reporting on persecuted minorities ought to be a little higher. The Irish Daily Star called the police operation a “cock-up” in a front page piece on Wednesday—long before police had given the child back—but their sister paper in the UK claimed “‘Maddie’ found in Ireland.”
Unfortunately, what happened in Ireland this week is not the worst crime against the Roma community to take place in recent years. Just two months ago, Hungarian ultra-nationalists were jailed for a 14-month campaign of racist murders against Roma families in their homes; the youngest victim was a five-year-old child. In Belfast, socialists and anarchists stood guard outside Roma houses in 2009 when swastikas were daubed on the walls and in violent scenes 100 people were forced to flee the city for good.
Before having to deal with attacks on their family life from Ireland’s police, the Garda Siochana, Roma were defending their homes in Hungary from the similarly named Magyar Garda, far-right vigilantes who once punched my in the head after confusing me for a Jew. They were drunk. Nice guys. In Hungary, the Roma face regular protests outside their homes because they are, apparently the cause of all of society’s problems. That’s according to Jobbik, a far-right outfit that ought to be consigned to shouting nonsense from the sidelines but is, in fact, on the verge of becoming Hungary’s second largest political party. Speak to any member and they will tell you about the horrific crimes the Roma commit. Probe further and they’ll tell you, “Well, it didn’t happen to me, but my friend..."
Members of Magyar Nemzeti Garda, a Hungarian nationalist militia. Photo by Brian Whelan.
I visited the Jobbik-controlled village of Gyongyospata, Hungary, earlier this year, where hundreds of uniformed nationalists have held torch-lit protests through the unpaved streets of the Roma district. They drove their motorbikes and sat revving their engines and threw punches when Gypsies tried to defend the area where they’ve lived for 600 years. Pushed to the margins of society, Hungary's Roma population—which numbers one million—has an unemployment rate that is six times the national average. So they leave and go to Spain, Canada, or France, knowing there's a chance they'll never feel welcome.
One activist in Budapest told me last night that Europeans have missed the point: “Roma are Europeans. They are not stateless, they are European citizens. Full stop, period. And unless they are forced from their homes, they tend not to be nomadic. Seriously, your average Euro yuppie is more 'nomadic' than your average Roma. This last week shows a lot about Europe—especially how those old blood libel tropes are alive and well within the mainstream media.”
I’ve seen where some Roma end up in Britain. I’ve spent some time chatting in broken English at a central London park where they sleep, watching them eating sugar sachets lifted from coffee chains for sustenance. This is not a glamorous life. These are not sophisticated crime gangs. They are people desperate for a better life.
Roma Gypsies are thieves, they are coming to your country to steal benefits, children, and your wallet and send millions back to their home countries: this kind of lazy stereotyping is the last remaining safe space for blatant racism. Nigel Farage can claim Roma crime gangs are going to flood the UK, but nobody compares him to Enoch Powell. Imagine if a black family in Greece were suspected of child abduction and this suspicion alone was enough to prompt police investigations into other black families in Ireland. That is how absurd this is.
Charlie Chaplin lives on at a Roma pride march in Budapest last week. Photo courtesy of Redjade.
Charlie Chaplin was Romani. He also delivered the most sincere and impassioned cry against fascism I’ve ever heard in The Great Dictator, despairing; “Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.” The lessons of history are there. Continue to marginalize the Roma and dehumanize them and bad things will continue to happen to them. Project one crime onto an entire ethnicity and you’re handing a huge stick to fascists, and when they’re finished beating the Roma with it, they’ll be coming for you.
Follow Brian on Twitter: @brianwhelanhack
Other times Roma people have been the victims of discrimination: