Roma in Europe: Guilty until proven innocent?

Stigmatization of Roma communities as criminal is disturbing and dangerous, warns UN Independent Expert on minority issues Rita Izsák

GENEVA (29 October 2013) – “The recent activities of some national authorities to remove ‘non-Roma looking’ children from Roma families due to their alleged abduction has led to sensationalist media coverage, has been disturbing and may result in a dangerous, unwarranted backlash against Roma individuals and communities. Some authorities and media outlets appear to be working on the basis that the Roma are ‘guilty until proven innocent’.

The case of the young blonde girl called Maria, who was found living in a Roma settlement in Greece, prompted a wave of anti-Roma reports, which made the front pages of media globally. Uninformed accusations were made about how she was stolen and abused, even before a thorough investigation could be conducted. Reports now suggest that, following DNA tests, Maria has been found to be the daughter of Bulgarian Roma parents who have stated that they voluntarily left the girl with the Greek Roma family because they could not afford to look after her themselves. The Greek Roma couple reportedly remain in custody on charges of abduction.

If investigations find that Maria was abducted by those Roma she lived with, then certainly those individuals should face justice and should be prosecuted according to the law. But too many people appear to believe the stereotypes that all Roma are criminals by birth. If Roma individuals are found to be guilty of a crime, this will be the crime of those individuals, not of the entire Roma population. Sadly, this recent coverage threatens to provoke a further angry reaction against Roma communities accused of snatching children, who are already the subject of hatred. In various countries, desperate families with missing children are now calling on police to investigate Roma settlements to find their loved ones.

Meanwhile, Roma families are seeing their own children being taken away from them based on simplistic notions of the right eye-colour and hair-colour for a Roma individual. There has been evidence of inappropriate, ethnically biased behaviour on the part of some authorities, which must cease. The incident in Ireland recently, where two blonde Roma children were taken away from their parents, and only returned after DNA tests proved that they were indeed their children, is illustrative and must have been distressing for the families.

For generations, Roma children have been taken away from their families because of poverty and the assumption that poor Roma parents cannot take care of their children. Many Roma children go missing and are at risk of trafficking or prostitution. Segregated education of Roma, the forced sterilization of Roma women, and the murder of Roma individuals in hate based attacks are just a few of the many tragedies faced by Roma that rarely get media coverage. The Roma population in Europe is estimated at about 12 million people, and there is a long history of discrimination against them.

I call on all media and commentators, including political figures and leaders of political parties to exercise restraint and refrain from dangerous generalizations on the supposed criminality of Roma. Such irresponsible coverage and hateful rhetoric will only trigger further stigmatization and even violence against Roma individuals and communities. I urge journalists to cover these issues responsibly.

At this time of economic crisis and disillusionment, the last thing we need is further scapegoating of those who are already marginalized.”

Rita Izsák was appointed as Independent Expert on minority issues by the Human Rights Council in June 2011 and took up her functions on 01 August 2011. As Independent Expert, she is independent from any government or organization and serves in her individual capacity. Learn more here.

Check the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities here.