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Maria and the Roma: Don't let this case damn an entire people

Stigmatising the Roma will only make integration more difficult

Historically short on comfort, life as a Roma immigrant looks set to become a degree or so harder. Two feelings were incited immediately by the circulation of a picture of Maria, the 4-year-old blonde girl allegedly abducted by a Roma couple in central Greece: first, how awful an ordeal for any parent who thinks this may be their child. Second, how terribly ugly the alleged crimes; child-snatching, followed by benefit-fraud, with accusations of child abuse thrown in to boot.

This first feeling is a proper one, same as the second. But with the second comes an element of risk. It’s not inconceivable that anger at a single Roma couple, a 39-year-old man and 40-year-old woman, who claim they didn’t steal the child, will metastise into anger at an entire people. In a volatile Europe, you could hardly construct a more perfect or timely villain.

Tensions with the Roma run high in France already. Manuel Valls, the French interior minister, said last week that the Roma people lived so different a life to the indigenous population that they could not hope for integration. As some Roma children are sent by criminal gangs to pick-pocket on Metro trains and in city-centres, one poll found 93 per cent support his statement. Last summer a French deputy mayor, greeted by Nazi salutes on a visit to a Roma camp, reportedly muttered “maybe Hitler didn’t kill enough of them.” (Estimations of the scale of genocide reach 70 per cent.)

Britain, home to far fewer Roma than either Germany or France, anxiously awaits the beginning of 2014, when EU rules will allow Romanians free travel into the country. Both David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith warn of ‘benefit tourism’. The couple who raised Maria - letting a layer of grime settle on her face and hands and pigtails – are thought to have collected Greek benefits for many more children than they could possibly have conceived.

The difficulty here is keeping things in perspective. Already the fact that Maria is blonde and white, inevitably a reminder of Madeleine McCann, has contributed to wall-to-wall coverage. Were it a Romanian child found in the Roma camp, this would not have been a story. And, for populations that interact with the Roma primarily in the form of street-beggars, or tabloid scaremongering, it takes a mental contortion to get a sense of life from their point of view. These are the facts. 90 per cent of Roma in Europe live below the poverty line. They are shunted ceaselessly from place to place. Many say they can’t get jobs.

Responding to the child-snatching headlines, which fit a generations-old stereotype, native populations have two choices: French and British people can allow the stigma against the Roma to grow. Or – like the Germans have – they can support investment in education and social services to root out crime, and slow the traffic of Roma children into criminal gangs. One is easier, but will make the problem worse. The other is harder, but might make it better.