Why Is Everyone in Europe So Obsessed With the Roma This Week?

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Oct. 24 2013 3:29 PM

Europe’s Month of Roma Controversy

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A Roma man sits on the steps of his caravan watching a boy at a Roma camp in Ivry, a suburb of Paris, on Oct. 23, 2013.

Photo by Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

The last couple of weeks have seen an inordinate amount of media attention focused on Europe’s Roma community, also known as Gypsies. The biggest international story is that of “Maria,” the blond, blue-eyed girl removed by police from a couple during a raid on a camp in Greece when they became suspicious that she looked nothing like her darker-skinned parents.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

DNA tests confirmed that the child was not related to the couple, sparking a continentwide search for her biological parents. The couple say the girl was not abducted, that it was "an adoption that was not exactly legal but took place with the mother's consent." This could be plausible, though further investigations have shown that the couple had used multiple names to register 14 children in three different cities, perhaps as part of a government benefits scam. Greek authorities have ordered an investigation of thousands of birth certificates issued in the last five years, and three more Roma have already been arrested in a similar case case on the island of Lesbos.

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While it certainly seems like something not-quite-aboveboard was going on here, the case has raised fears that the case of the “blonde angel,” as she has been called in the Greek media, could reignite old myths of Gypsies kidnapping white children. When ancient prejudices combine with the tabloid media’s fixation on missing blond children, it’s hard to imagine anything good coming from it.

In the wake of the case, two Roma children in Ireland—a 7-year-old girl near Dublin and a two-year-old boy in County Westmeath—were returned to their parents shortly after being seized by police. In the girl’s case, DNA tests proved she was the couple’s child.

Meanwhile, France is having its own Roma controversy, with students protesting the expulsion of two teenagers, including a 15-year-old Kosovar girl who was pulled off a school bus so she could be deported along with her family. The girl’s mother has been beaten and hospitalized back in Kosovo.

President François Hollande has suggested that the girl, Leonarda Dibrani, could return without her family, an idea that didn’t really satisfy either side of the debate. Hollande’s interior minister, Manuel Valls, had created controversy last month by calling for the Roma to be expelled from France and saying they would never be integrated into society. “These populations have ways of life that are extremely different from ours, and which obviously are in confrontation with ours,” he said.

Anti-Roma sentiment tends to become more intense during times of economic distress, and that certainly seems to have been the case during the most recent economic crisis, demonstrated most vividly by the rise of the viciously anti-Roma Jobbik party in Hungary.    

It’s not quite clear where all this is heading, but it certainly seems like this month could be remembered as something of a turning point for Europe’s Roma.

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