Media coverage of the case of Maria in Greece was influenced by, and indeed fed, unfounded and deeply prejudiced myths regarding members of the Roma community abducting children, says Ireland’s children’s ombudsman
Media reporting on the case of Maria in Greece had negative resonances in Ireland. EnetEnglish has modified the photo to protect Maria’s identity An inquiry by Ireland’s Ombudsman for Children has found there was a “categorical link” between the media’s reporting on the case of a Roma girl taken by Greek police from a Roma settlement last October and the Irish police’s decision to remove two Roma children from their families days later.
In a report (pdf) of a special inquiry released on Tuesday, the ombudsman, Emily Logan, was critical of the Irish police’s handling of both cases in which members of the public expressed concern that two fair-haired children – referred to as Child T and Child A – in Dublin and Athlone did not resemble their parents.
The children were taken into care amid what were subsequently shown to be unfounded fears they had been abducted. Both children were returned to their respective parents within three days.
“In the cases of both Child T and Child A in Ireland, there was a categorical link to the reporting of the case of ‘Maria’ in Greece. The media coverage of the case in Greece was influenced by, and indeed fed, unfounded and deeply prejudiced myths regarding members of the Roma community abducting children. Sadly, it is clear to the Inquiry that some people living in Ireland share those deeply prejudiced and racist opinions, asserting that members of the Roma ‘rob’ children as a means of accessing social welfare benefits,” Logan concluded.
As EnetEnglish has documented in detail, the Smile of the Child organisation, which recently secured custody of Maria, was instrumental in feeding anti-Roma steroeptypes to the media when her case became public. In one of his first interviews at the time, the head of the organisation, Kostas Yannopoulos, said he believed Maria was not Roma and that she was “either sold at maternity, or later abducted, for other … begging, they use these children for begging, or later for prostitution, or, even worse, for selling for other purposes”. It later emerged that Maria’s Bulgarian Roma birth mother had allowed her social parents to informally adopt her.
The Irish ombudsman said that the member of the public who raised concerns with police about Child A “appears to have been heavily influenced by the media coverage of a case in Greece [the Maria case] which led to a suspicion of child abduction in the absence of any indications or evidence that would support such a conclusion”.
In an email to Irish police, sent four days after the case involving Maria garnered worldwide attention, the member of the public said that she considered the difference in appearance between the child and the rest of the family to be unusual. “The recent news about the little girl Maria who was found made me realise that I should have reported it,” the informant wrote.
The ombudsman described this as an “entirely unwarranted conclusion of suspected child abduction based solely on the child’s appearance and the media coverage of the case in Greece”.
The report said that “much of the international media coverage of that case perpetuated negative myths regarding the Roma community. In particular, the readiness to believe that ‘Maria’ had been abducted was fed by a widespread and long-standing belief that the Roma are ‘child-abductors’. This belief, utterly without foundation, was given credence during the period in which the story regarding ‘Maria’ was prominent in the media.”
In the case of Child T, police intervened after a journalist forwarded them a message left by a member of the public on his Facebook page, which stated:
“Today was on the news the blond child found in Roma Camp in Greece. There is also little girl living in Roma house in Tallaght [Dublin] and she is blond and blue eyes. Her name is [Child T] and the address is [Child T's address]. I am from [country in Eastern Europe] myself and it’s a big problem there missing kids. The Romas robing [sic] them to get child benefit in Europe.”
This communication, the Irish ombudsman noted, underlined that “the media coverage of the case in Greece was influenced by – and indeed fed – unfounded and deeply prejudiced myths regarding members of the Roma community abducting children”.
“Unfortunately, the resonance in Ireland also included the negative tones associated with the Greek case, namely the mistaken view that the Roma community does not include individuals with fair hair and features, combined with an immediately heightened suspicion that the presence of such children with Roma families would be readily explained by abduction.”
Were the Irish police “better informed with respect to the Roma community, members would have been able to put the international media coverage of the case of Maria in Greece – which played such a crucial role in triggering Garda (police action in the cases of Child T and Child A – in its proper context,” the report continued.
Shortly before the publication of the report, Ireland’s prime minister apologised on behalf of the state to the Roma families involved.
“I do apologise to those families, particularly the children who had to put up with these events,” Enda Kenny said.
He was responding to a parliamentary question from Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams who suggested he apologise “as a gesture to those people who have come to our shores, particularly those who have suffered this injustice”.