A police photograph took over the news last week: a tiny girl sitting between her parents, all of them staring blankly into the camera. It is not a flattering picture: the man and woman seem tired,old and dead-eyed, and the little girl looks squeezed uncomfortably between them, with questioning eyes and tangled hair – like a dishevelled version of Maddie McCann. But none of this would have ever sparked anyone’s interest, if it hadn’t been for the fact that the little girl looks white, and her parents brown. Something has got to be wrong with this picture!
Or so the Greek police must have thought, when they found this family in a Roma camp they were raiding. In this environment, being a pale-skinned child that cannot speak Greek is deemed suspicious and reason enough to take her away and submit her to DNA testing. The results seemed to confirm the fears: Maria and her supposed parents were not related, ergo, she must have been abducted. The media was quick to conclude: “Once again”, those criminal vagabond gypsies had stolen a white child! The police, the charity organization responsible for Maria, and the news media started frantically searching for her parents. Where could they be found? Scandinavia was suggested as Maria’s likely origin, because, well, look at her!
In the process of searching for Maria’s real parents, more Roma families came under suspicion. Two children in Ireland were taken away from their families to undergo DNA testing in order to prove that they were not, in fact, victims of a terrible crime. Both children have since been returned to their families, at least one of them on the grounds that her guardians were her biological parents after all. Later that week, Maria’s parents could finally be located. However, they were not Marit and Leif Svensson from Sweden, but Sasha and Atanas Ruseva, a Roma couple from Bulgaria, who gave up their child four years ago because they were too poor to care for her.
The racist myth of the gypsy child abductors turned out to be nothing but a myth after all. But make no mistake, children are taken away and removed from their safe and familiar homes in Europe all the time. But I am not talking about the Maddie McCanns, whose disappearance is a terrible tragedy. I’m not even talking about the Roma boys and girls that were taken away from their parents because they happened to look different, namely white, and thus were deemed worthy of “protection”. I am talking about the Leonarda Dibranis.
Leonarda Dibrani, a 15-year-old of Roma origin living in France, was ordered off a school bus during a school trip and deported to Kosovo, after her parents failed to receive political refugee status. Following protests by her fellow students, French President Fançois Hollande granted her permission to return to France to finish her education – but she would have to do so without her family.
This is just plain cruel: first, you are forced to leave your friends and your known surroundings to be taken to an environment that is inhospitable to you and your family. Then, you are presented with a Sophie’s choice: to go home without your family, or stay in a poverty-stricken country that you’ve never been to before!
However, while the situation of Maria, the “blonde angel”, has sparked outrage and anger, fueling the hatred towards an already persecuted community, the majority of the French would be perfectly happy for Leonarda to stay away from France and remain in an essentially dangerous living situation (since being moved to the Kosovo, Leonarda’s family has been attacked repeatedly). Maria’s foster parents were accused of neglecting her and not caring for her well-being, but Leonarda and her siblings’ living conditions simply do not matter. This shows how deep racial bias runs.
So who are the real child abusers? The Roma families, who sometimes use dubious methods to get by in a system that has stacked all the odds against them? Or the facilitators of a deeply racist society: governments that favor national interests over human rights, and media outlets looking for easy headlines that feed the people’s ressentiment?