“Gypsy child-thieves” and other myths; or why you can’t be Romani and blonde

- Blog | Adrian Marsh

In the past week, it can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that there has been a media frenzy, a hysterical outburst of racism and murderous prejudice towards Romani people dubbed as ‘child-traffickers’, ‘child-abusers’ and ‘child-thieves’. In two national cases (Ireland and Greece), blonde-haired, pale-skinned and blue-eyed children with Romani families have been forcibly removed on the basis that they ‘look different’ and therefore cannot belong to the families in question ( Furthermore, on the basis of this highly unscientific, deeply biased assumption these children are assumed to have been ‘stolen’ from their biological parents – presumed northern Europeans – inciting enormous numbers of enquiries from parents in various western European countries, who are seeking their own children. The tragedy of loss for these families has been cynically used by unscrupulous media – journalists and television reporters across Europe – to whip-up hatred and fury at Romani people as the objects of blame for these children going missing. Charity organisations (NGO’s) that supposedly promote and protect children’s rights have been quick to join the frenzy and denounce the validity or otherwise of statements from Roma parents or adoptive parents claiming that these children are their own, either through adoption or literally their own biological offspring.

Popular resentment and inflamed prejudice against Romani people has led to incidents of child snatching in countries where neo-fascist groups are strong, on the basis that these children ‘looked different’ from their parents (i.e. were lighter in colouring). Yet in both the national cases, DNA testing has proven that these children are who the parents (whether adoptive or biological) said they were – they are Romani children ( Their fear and distress during the forced removal from those they love and who love them has been proven not to be a product of a miserable existence, but the result of the ‘intervention’ by state authorities and ‘do-gooders’ from charity organisations determined to take away these children from their parents.

As these children have now been proven to be Roma, they will of course, fall back into the patterns set for Romani children in Europe – no access to quality early years provision or services, poor education in kindergarten, nursery and primary school – if they can access any of these at all, segregation socially and geographically into ‘camps’, ghettos or abandoned and rotting housing projects such as Lunix IX in Slovakia ( Maria will live a shorter life than the Greeks who wished to take her away from her parents, she will likely attend the same kind of segregated schools as Sampanis and others, who brought a human rights case for educational exclusion against the Greek government to the European Court of Human Rights have done (twice), but with no response. Her health will suffer catastrophically as a result of poor housing conditions and bad food, little access to health care and no affordable medicines. In short, she will become like all Romani people in Europe, only recognisable when racism and prejudice focuses upon her as a ‘thief’, ‘liar’ and ‘beggar’ (

What lies behind these European assumptions that one can’t be blonde, light-skinned and Romani? There is after all, enormous variation in populations, regardless of national identities. Large numbers of Swedish children are not blonde and blue-eyed, not all Irish children are red-haired and green-eyed and not all Dutch children are tall. In terms of the fast-changing demographic picture in most western European nation states, there are many people of diverse origins now become Black British or North African French. There are Norwegians, born and raised that are Vietnamese in origins, many Germans whose families have roots in Anatolia through their Turkish, Kurdish and Alevi parents. Many Canadians (to move beyond the boundaries of Europe) are Armenian in origins, or Tamil though they are no less Canadian for all that. The diversity of nations, internally is far greater in modern Europe and the Americas, than externally. English Gypsies, French Manouche and Swedish Resande may have much more in common with their majority neighbours than with their related communities in other countries – yet, the racism and prejudice shown towards them by these same neighbours in England, France or Sweden certainly means that Romani people across the world share common experiences of exclusion and marginalisation at the hands of the majorities in their countries.

The revival of the mediaeval myths around ‘Gypsy child stealing’ again point to longevity of these stereotypes through periods of historical crisis. Romani history is punctuated by outbreaks of violence and generalised persecution from non-Romani populations, in a cycle of relationships that shifts from fascination to fear and repulsion, romanticism to racism and murderous reaction. The final turn in this Wheel of Fortune is the attempted extermination and mass murder of Romani communities by non-Roma, as has taken place in two genocidal episodes in the 1540’s and the 1940’s. Again, the cumulative impact of anti Gypsy rhetoric has been building steadily over the past decade and as I predicted in a lecture at Södertörns University in Stockholm in 2006, Europe is steadily moving into the conditions where once again, Gypsies and Jews will be ‘scapegoated’ for the economic and social failures of majority elites. George Santayana’s oft quoted maxim about those forgetting their history being condemned to repeat it doesn’t allow for the deliberate erasure of the past in service of the present. Europeans may have the luxury of selective memory but there are murderous consequences for the Gypsies, Roma, Sinti and Travellers (as for the Jews, Native Americans and a host of indigenous peoples) when they choose to do so.

The origins of this particular myth lie in sixteenth century Europe, when economic conditions were again extremely hard and the emergence of nation states under competing, powerful and centralised dynasties (such as the Tudors, Habsburgs and Ottomans) forced often unwelcome exactions and taxes upon increasingly impoverished populations, to the enormous benefit of a wealthy elite. This history should tell us something about today’s frenzied hysteria around these allegations. The repeat of this pattern in circumstances of economic collapse in 1930’s Europe, should remind us all, non-Roma and Romani alike that we have seen this all before and we know where it leads. Unpopular and unscrupulous elites are once again enforcing economic stringency upon populations and are using varieties of stratagems to conduct sleight of hand whilst they do so, enabling corrupt and authoritarian governments and unaccountable corporate elites to continue raiding the coffers whilst pointing in the other direction.

Greece, the most notorious country in Europe for trafficking and with famously corrupt and complicit law enforcement agencies involved in the trade of women and children into Europe, is going through the worst economic crisis since the 1950’s struggles after the Second World War. Ireland’s economy collapsed utterly after irresponsible banking practises and inflationary investment on a massive scale by a ‘get rich quick’ scramble by the few, left the country in a financial shambles. The ‘austerity’ policies, by which majority populations are increasibgly made to bear the burden of this reckless financial adventurism, are offered small comfort by those from the European Central Bank and their goverments, just a series of scapegoats in the form of old stereotypes: the ‘undeserving poor’, indigent beggars, ‘feckless’ youth and ‘Gypsy child thieves’. These are the most obvious examples of the phenomenon and the tried and tested ways of distracting anger, frustration and attention are being rolled out again.

The notion that phenotypically (physically different looking) dissimilar family members are an aberration should have been dispelled by modern genetics, but despite the blindingly obvious and commonplace observations about families taking after ‘different sides’, with variations in hair colouring, eyes and skin tones, the racist notion that family members cannot look physically different from each other and from the ethnic ‘norm’ remains to haunt the modern psyche. Taking children away from parents on this basis, if applied widely, would rightly result in outrage and fury with all the damage to children that comes from forcibly removing them except, it seems if you are a Romani family. Modern social services child protection is not exactly an unblemished record of success in cases of removal of children from minority ethnic communities and the alternatives in the form of children’s homes and foster care are littered with examples of abuse by carers and custodians. The Church has an equally dubious record of success in removing children from ‘unsuitable’ families to raise them in care, as we have witnessed in recent years with numerous scandals regarding clerical abuse. As for the media as the guardians of children’s welfare, the Jimmy Saville affair ( surely puts paid to any claims to a moral high ground on that score.

Adoption, especially across cultures and ethnicities is also apparently something that white majorities can engage in but not if you are parents of colour. Time honoured notions of ‘racial’ barriers are coming into play in these allegations of Gypsy child abduction and stealing. This is an issue for early childhood to address, as many practitioners in early years accept and perpetuate these stereotypes; in one monitoring visit to Croatia, I was told by an early years pedagogue that she had some really beautiful Roma children (actually they were Beyash, but that distinction wasn’t even acknowledged) in her class, “as if they were not Roma”. Needless to say, these Romani children were pale skinned and blonde, so closer to the ‘ideal’ ethnic norm of Croats.

Before we reach the point of no return, we need to remind each other what this is really about; we’ve been here before in living memory, in the middle of the last century, when extreme racism and political fascism went hand-in-hand and the story ends badly for us all…”