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

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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.

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