The grim history of the Roma is no fairy tale

The reaction to the discovery of a little blonde girl in a travellers' camp illustrates an age-old – and shameful – persecution of an isolated people

Share

It was like a doom-laden fairy tale from the Dark Ages. A sweet little girl, instantly dubbed the blonde angel, stolen by a swarthy Roma couple who looked shifty and shady as people always do in police mugshots. The story tapped into ancient fears of greedy gypsies stealing innocent children, of good versus evil at its most rudimentary level.

The shock waves rippled across Europe, sowing fear and loathing. In Ireland – a country with a shameful record of hostility towards travelling people – a seven-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy were ripped from their families despite having birth certificates and passports in perfect order. In Serbia, skinheads tried to take a fair-haired Roma child from his parents. In Britain, broadcasters and newspapers reheated scare stories and, with minimal evidence, stoked the fires of living hell for families of missing children such as Madeleine McCann.

For all the wild claims of child theft and trafficking gangs on the rampage, we do not know the full story of that blonde Bulgarian girl found in Greece. It may be a sordid saga of stolen or sold children, or simply the kind of informal adoption common in many communities. Whatever the truth, one single incident no more shows that Roma tend to be child-snatchers than the Stuart Hall case proves football commentators are paedophiles.

It would be nice to think we have moved on from days when the actions of an individual damn an entire community, or from eugenicist ideas that races or communities are predisposed towards certain actions. Sadly, this week showed these corrosive concepts still hold society in their cruel grip – something well understood by other marginalised groups, most notably people with disabilities. Try replacing the word Roma with Jew, or gypsy with gay, to illustrate the attitudes on display.

If you strip away the myths and moral panic, the reality is far more disturbing. For all the hoary claims there is zero hard evidence of Roma stealing children – yet fears about "dirty gypsies" have sanctioned the theft of their own children by the state in Britain even within my lifetime. Families were forced into forest compounds, boys put in the army, girls sent into service.

The author Katharine Quarmby tells the story in her recent book No Place To Call Home of one boy taken by officials from his family's tent in Fife and placed in children's homes, where he was sexually abused. His mother spent the rest of her life hunting for him, dying at the age of 41 without seeing her son again. Scottish authorities have never apologised for such disgraceful actions, which continued into the 1960s. Similar enforced family break-ups were seen in Western Europe for at least another decade.

Today there are Roma chefs, clerics and lawyers, yet although it is the size of the Chinese community, this excluded group endures lower life expectancy and higher rates of infant mortality and adult suicide than other Britons. Liberals who howl in outrage over racism happily use hate language such as "pikey" and "gyppo", while police prompt false claims of Faganism and television feeds stereotypes with freak-show programmes. Now we see Roma used to fuel immigration concerns as EU restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians are lifted.

This loathing is the legacy of medieval fears over dark-skinned nomadic outsiders, when laws were passed permitting their branding, enslavement, exile, even execution. In Victorian times, Roma and gypsies were romanticised by writers even as they were scapegoated and criminalised during economic downturns. Later, they were the forgotten victims of the Nazis, with up to half a million slaughtered; in death camps they were frequently singled out for the most horrific medical experiments.

Never again? Maybe not mass extermination, but Europe's 10 million Roma are still victims of abuse, prejudice and poverty. I was shocked to discover the hatred towards them in Hungary; they are unable to get jobs, segregated, and their children classified as mentally handicapped to keep them out of mainstream schools. The governing party blames them for crime while honouring a leader who deported families to Auschwitz, and vigilante groups terrorise their villages and firebomb their homes. One gang was jailed two months ago for a 14-month murder spree; a child of five was among the dead.

There are similar stories across the Continent, forcing fearful families to the fringes of society.

In Italy, where mobs attacked their camps five years ago and the prime minister responded in the most racist manner by ordering the fingerprinting of all 150,000 Roma, acid was thrown at a mother and her child earlier this month. In the Czech Republic, human-rights groups demanded action to protect Roma from violence and intimidation after riots this summer. In Slovakia, they are being segregated behind imposing walls, a disturbing echo of dismal recent history.

In France, politicians on right and left have scapegoated Roma amid recent economic woes. One prominent figure ridiculously claimed a community of 15,000 people was responsible for one in 10 crimes in a country of 65 million, while the hardline interior minister's poll ratings rose after calls for them to leave and forced evictions. The hapless president, meanwhile, tied himself in knots over the expulsion of a teenage Roma girl that led his popularity to plunge further.

Remember all this when you see destitute Roma families living in apartheid-like conditions. Half their households lack kitchens or inside toilets while fewer than a third have jobs, illiteracy is rife and life expectancy 10 years lower than among fellow Europeans. These are isolated people more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators; indeed, it has been suggested offences actually fall around well-managed sites.

But who wants facts to intrude on a good scare story – especially when it panders to age-old prejudice against the most abused community on our continent.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song  

Ukip Calypso by Mike Read? The horror! The horror!

Patrick Strudwick
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past