‘Little Maria’ and anti-Roma discrimination in Greece


It is difficult to forget the case of little Maria, the ‘mystery’ fair-headed child taken away by police after she was found living in abject poverty with a Roma couple in the southern Greek town of Farsala, last October.

It not only sparked an international search for her biological parents, but it also exposed the extreme prejudice and harsh living conditions endured by the Roma community in Greece on a daily basis.

Authorities were conducting a raid in search of drugs and weapons when they caught sight of a small girl with fair skin and green eyes.

They became suspicious because the child looked so different from the dark-skinned couple who claimed to be her parents.

They took Maria, who is believed to be around five years old, into care and arrested the adults.

A media storm ensued and subsequent DNA tests revealed the little girl was not related to the couple, identified as 39-year-old Christos Salis and 40-year-old Eleftheria Dimopoulou.

However, despite thousands of calls from families as far away as the United States and Australia, Maria was eventually found to be the biological daughter of a Roma couple living in Bulgaria who claimed they left her in Greece because they were too poor to feed her.

They vehemently deny selling her.

Maria has been placed into foster care in Bulgaria, while Salidis and Dimopoulou are in jail facing charges of kidnapping, benefits fraud and falsification of documents.

The child abduction charge has not been dropped, but since Ruseva, the child’s biological mother, is not pressing kidnapping charges, the Greek court is expected to modify that to a charge relating to the acquisition of a child, rather than the abduction of one.


Worst discrimination in Europe

The case highlights the plight of what is probably Europe’s most disadvantaged minority group.

It is difficult to obtain accurate statistics for Europe’s Roma population. However, there are thought to be between 10 and 12 million Roma across Europe and 250,000 in Greece alone.

Many Greek Roma do not have birth certificates because the families often forgo registering the birth of a child, as the cost of obtaining a birth certificate can be prohibitive.

As a result of this official invisibility, Roma are denied legal protection, public healthcare and the opportunity to enrol their children into school, to get a job and to register to vote.

It also means Roma are at increased risk of human trafficking and miscarriages of justice, as it is easier for children to disappear.

However, this is only a small fragment of a bigger problem.

At a time of grinding austerity, with an official unemployment rate at more than 27 per cent, minorities and migrants are facing a growing political and economic backlash.

The Roma, blighted by poverty and living in squalid housing have been suffering from disproportionally high levels of joblessness and have been facing increasing discrimination. They are often blamed for crime, unemployment and instability.

Dimitris Triantafylou, president of the local Roma community in the Greek town of Sofades, has come across many cases of racism against the Roma.

“The racism Roma face is not only personal but institutional,” he says. “We’ve seen many racist attitudes from the local authorities over the past few months. But we’ve learned to live with the burden and fight for change.”

The situation has become worse in recent years, since the rapid rise in popularity of the Greek extreme far-right party, Golden Dawn, which has often targeted them in violent attacks.

Some of the most common problems the Roma communities face in Greece include several instances of child labour and abuse, low school attendance, police discrimination, drug use, and drug trafficking.

Especially when it comes to education, the Greek state perpetuates the marginalisation of the Roma by turning a blind eye to practices which create segregated schools, and by failing to take measures to improve the attendance of Roma in compulsory education.

The European Union’s most recent Minority and Discrimination Survey (EU-MIDIS), which was published in 2009, reported that of all the countries in Europe, it is in Greece that the Roma face the worst discrimination.

According to the report, 55 per cent of the Greek Roma surveyed said they had experienced discrimination over the past 12 months, 30 per cent reported discriminatory treatment in private businesses, and another 24 per cent said they experienced discrimination at work or while looking for employment.

Another 78 per cent said they did not report cases of discrimination because “they were not confident that the police would be able to do anything.”

And a further 56 per cent said that they had been stopped and searched by police at least once over the last 12 months, while 69 per cent said they were the target of ethnic profiling.

According to the report, “Greece stands out as having a highly policed Roma community that considers its encounters with the police to be discriminatory.”


Isolation and health risks

Most Greek Roma live in informal housing camps, where they remain isolated from society and their daily challenges go unreported.

According to data provided by the International Romani Network, a study conducted in cooperation with the Greek Labour Ministry revealed that the majority of these camps are not connected to the national power grid while many settlements have no water supply or sewage facilities.

According to the same report, these camps are usually located in places which are deemed unsuitable for housing development – near rubbish dumps or drainage systems, for example.

Epidemic diseases, as well as poor nutrition and sanitation standards among Greece’s Roma communities, are also worrying.

Consequently, the Greek Roma population often suffers from chronic illnesses, problems with dental hygiene and gynaecological complications. Many women in the community have no knowledge of the Pap test and rarely undergo a cervical smear.

As little Maria’s story fades away, Greece’s Roma community will continue to endure discrimination, as well as a number of legal and procedural challenges put in place by the Greek state, thus perpetuating societal inequality in an already troubled country.

“Unfortunately though, Greece isn’t alone in mistreating Roma,” says Eleni Tsetsekou, a consultant on Roma to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe.

“There’s no difference in Roma lives in other European countries, or in how they’re confronted by the majority of people,” she said.

“Negative stereotypes are always present and deeply rooted.”