Their blonde hair and blue eyes marked them as unusual, extraordinary even. And when authorities were alerted to their presence in Romany communities police acted swiftly, and incorrectly. But as the Irish police ombudsman began an investigation into the removal of two children, the family of one of the girls described how they had been left traumatised, and accused the police of racism.
In the first case, a seven-year-old girl was taken from her home in Dublin after a neighbour reported that the couple from Romania, who have lived in Ireland for 12 years, were dark while the daughter was blonde – like the blonde girl Maria in Greece whose case became a cause? célèbre a few days before. Subsequently a two-year-old boy was taken from his Romany parents’ home in Athlone for the same reason. The children were returned to their homes this week, after tests proved that they shared the same DNA as the adults who claimed to be their parents.
Romany is the neutral English term for the traditionally itinerant community, believed to be some 11 million strong, often known as Gypsies, who migrated from India to Europe via the Middle East in the 15th century.
An 18-year-old sister of the girl removed from her home in Dublin was indignant about the way the family had been treated, saying the whole family was traumatised, and accused the police of racism. “They took her just because she had blue eyes and blonde hair,” she said. “Most Romanian people have blue eyes. We were all traumatised. I used to be blonde when I was little, and my mum was blonde when she was little.”
Meanwhile police in Bulgaria have questioned a Bulgarian couple suspected of being the biological parents of Maria, the small blonde girl spotted by Greek police when they raided a Romany camp near Farsala, in central Greece. The couple in Greece, Christos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulou, insist that the girl was given to them legitimately. They have been charged with child abduction.
The Greek case once again focused attention on a community which over the centuries has frequently suffered persecution at the hands of the settled people they call “Gajé”. The problem has become far more acute since the collapse of communism.
Under communism, in countries such as Hungary, Romanies were treated not as an ethnic minority with their own ways but as a social problem to be solved through forcible integration. They were forced to move into cheap public housing estates and to work in state-owned factories; generally they were found in the meanest housing and the lowliest jobs.
But when communism collapsed, this vaunted solution to the “Gypsy problem” was revealed as one of communism’s many delusions. The factories closed down. And having lost their traditional occupations such as metal salvage and horse trading, and without any useful modern trades to take their place, the Romanies were reduced to gaming the welfare system on a grand scale and small-time criminality.
The resentment of the Gajé communities – resentment which had only been hibernating – once again emerged as a malign political force, leading to the emergence of anti-Romany vigilante groups, and stoking the popularity of extreme right-wing parties such as Hungary’s Jobbik. Those on the far right had not forgotten that Hitler’s solution to “the Gypsy problem” was the same as his answer to “the Jewish problem”. Hundreds of thousands of Romanies were killed in the Nazi death camps.
The opening of Europe’s borders with the introduction of Schengen has merely transplanted the problem from eastern to western Europe. The Maria saga, of little consequence in itself, is an indication of how inflammatory the growing Romany presence has become in the countries to which they have flocked.
It was President Sarkozy, of Hungarian (but not Romany) origin himself, who brought down the fury of the human rights lobby in 2009 when he ordered the summary expulsion of thousands of Romanies from France. He was responding with a populist gesture to demands from his right-wing constituency, to avoid being outflanked by the National Front. And under President Holland, too, the Romanies and their errant ways are becoming an ever graver political, and police, problem.
On 11 October in Nancy, eastern France, 26 Romanies were convicted of forcing children to steal sums amounting to hundreds of thousands of euros. Only one of them was acquitted. The details of their crimes stunned France, reinforcing old prejudices.
Three family clans from Croatia were accused of grooming children as young as 11 to steal. Once they had proven their skill by filleting tourists and other affluent Gajé they were sold, the asking price depending on their ability as thieves. Those who were most adept fetched tens of thousands of euros. The gang committed 100 robberies in France, Belgium and Germany in 2011.
The usual reflex of compassion for the “impoverished” Romanies was undermined by the testimony of investigators who visited the clan’s imposing marble villas in Croatia, and itemised the expensive brand goods in their caravans in northern France.
The classic liberal response to the Romany challenge is the cry of “integration”. But of course that was tried under communism, admittedly with an iron fist, and with paltry long-term results. Nonetheless, the situation of the community in Hungary is strikingly different from Italy, for example, where they have been present for almost equally long, albeit in smaller numbers.
When this writer researched the Romany issue in Hungary two years ago, he found numerous fully integrated Romanies in government service and four Romanies sitting in parliament. The only Romany MEP is a Hungarian woman called Livia Jaroka.
Yet the fierce antagonism provoked in western Europe by the criminal gangs makes it more difficult for integrationist initiatives to gain political traction. In Spain the effort to get all Romanies into secondary education and decent housing has produced results. Elsewhere, especially in France, it seems easier to yield to the demand that they be expelled en masse.
The Romanies’ defence lawyer in Nancy, Alain Behr, told the court: “This community crosses time and space with its traditions… They have preserved their tradition, which is one of survival.” They operate, he said, in “the style of the Middle Ages”. Yet his defendants’ predatory ways makes appreciation of the Romanies’ special charms much harder