The past couple of weeks have seen much of the media across Europe and the world lead with the story of “the Blonde Angel”, a child who was being raised in a Roma community in Greece, by a Roma couple who are not her biological parents. ‘Maria’ was removed by the police, the couple who were looking after her were charged with child abduction, and an international search was started for Maria’s real parents. The couple always claimed that she was given to them by her Bulgarian parents who could not afford to care for her and this claim appears to have been verified as a Bulgarian couple who back up this story have now been proven to be Maria’s biological parents.
Despite the full facts of the case not being known, vast amounts of words were written about the ‘abduction’ of Maria. The sensationalist reporting of this story led to people viewing Roma communities with renewed suspicion. In Ireland, two Roma children were taken from their families, in separate incidents, after reports from the local community that they looked different to their parents… before being returned when it was proven that they were indeed their children.
The case of ‘the Blonde Angel’ captured the imaginations of millions, and the racial elements, which underpin this interest are stark. The fact that Maria is blonde and blue eyed, was constantly referred to, as was how terrible it was for a child like her to be living in a ‘dirty and run down’ Roma settlement, only speaking a Romani dialect. It was reported that this case gave renewed hope to the parents of Madeline McCann and Ben Needham. The implication being that it was in all probability, Roma people who abducted these children, despite the evidence that child abduction exists across all ethnic groups.
Throughout history the Roma have been one of the most stigmatised and marginalised groups in UK and Europe. The stigma is so deeply-rooted that in 2006 the Commission for Racial Equality concluded that the Roma were the most excluded group in the UK.
The media plays a huge part in perpetuating and reinforcing the stereotypes and prejudice which lead to the stigmatisation of Roma people. The Roma are often portrayed as a single, homogeneous group, suspect and different from the rest of society. Many people have never met a Roma person or had first-hand experience of a Romani lifestyle. Nevertheless they feel able to give a detailed account of what a Roma person is like, often depicting them as either romantic and exotic, or lawless and immoral.
However, the Roma population is by no means homogenous and within Britain and across Europe. different Roma people have widely varying cultures and identities including dress, religion, language, employment and residence.
Playing to popular prejudice, political policies in many countries have sought to segregate or culturally suppress and assimilate Roma communities. In countries such as Greece, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, there has been an increase in the creation of Roma-free zones, bringing about the ghettoisation of the Roma in run-down areas on the outskirts of towns and cities. These policies have been greeted positively by the non-Roma population, who see the Roma as being to blame for their own situation.
As well as housing segregation, in many countries in Europe, Roma children are denied access to mainstream education. Legal cases have been brought and upheld in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Greece, Croatia and Slovakia, among others. Romani pupils are often placed in ‘practical’ schools which offer lower quality education and condemn them to a life of further poverty and marginalisation.
At EqualiTeach, we have worked exploring discrimination with thousands of adults and we are very aware that prejudice towards Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities is considered widely acceptable and often not even recognised as prejudice. During a training session that we delivered with teachers a couple of months ago, one group expressed the opinion that they wouldn’t want to live next door to a Roma family as they wouldn’t understand the rules of living in a house, how to behave and respect property. In reality, over 50% of Roma people in the UK live in houses.
In September this year, a free school opened in Birmingham, which is specifically for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children, those for whom English is not their first language and pupils with challenging behaviour. This is a worrying development. It is vital that we look at how mainstream education is failing these children and that we are working with mainstream schools to help them to provide inclusive and culturally affirming settings for all young people; not segregating Gypsy, Roma and Traveller young people away from the rest of society.
It is not acceptable for people to be written off as criminal, neglectful and worth less than other people in society because of their culture and heritage. We shouldn’t sit back and accept stereotypes which paint entire communities as suspect, where children who don’t look like their parents immediately raise suspicion and can be removed from a family on no more evidence than this. We need to analyse the assumptions that led people to immediately assume that Maria and the children in Ireland had been snatched, in the absence of any evidence to support this, and we need to be striving for a world where every child matters… not just the blonde haired, blue-eyed ones.
Sarah Soyei and Kate Holinshead: Directors, EqualiTeach