It started with a message on Facebook.
A woman in Dublin saw a TV news report last week about the blond girl in Greece named Maria who had been taken from her Roma family on suspicion she'd been kidnapped. The woman quickly posted a Facebook message to a local TV reporter. "There is also [a] little girl living in Roma house in Tallaght [a Dublin suburb] and she is blond and [has] blue eyes," the message said, adding the name and address of the girl.
The reporter passed the information to the police and within hours the 7-year old girl had been taken from her family and handed to Irish welfare officials, after the parents couldn't find her birth certificate and could only produce an outdated passport. When news of that removal broke, someone else told police about a 2-year old Roma boy living in Athlone, west of Dublin, who was also fair-haired. He too was immediately pulled from his home.
DNA testing later confirmed the parentage of the children and they were returned to their families. Maria too, it turned out after a wave of frenzied media coverage, hadn't been kidnapped at all but had been given to the Greek family by a Roma woman living in desperate poverty in Bulgaria who said she couldn't look after her.
The cases highlight the plight of Roma people in Europe, a largely marginalized community that is often stereotyped as being misfits, thieves and beggars. But even many Romas, and those who work with them, have been stunned at the level of hysteria and misinformation – and, many say, blatant racism – surrounding the Maria story.
Within days of the story breaking a kind of witch hunt was underway in many countries, with officials and ordinary people scouring Roma enclaves for white children on the presumption that any fair-skinned child must have been snatched. One politician in Italy recommended background checks on all Roma, and in Ireland the police had to defend their tactics to remove the two children based only on rumour and no allegation of abuse or neglect.
"The feeling and the reaction is one of shock and disbelief that something like this could happen in a so-called Western, civilized, developed country," said Martin Collins, co-director at Pavee Point, a charity in Dublin that works with Romas and Irish travellers, who are distinct from Romas but also have an itinerant lifestyle. "This was clearly a case of racial profiling and it is extremely dangerous." He and others have called for an investigation into the conduct of the police and social agencies, and this week the Irish government agreed and ordered a review.
For Roma like Damian Le Bas the frenzy surrounding the Maria case has been especially troubling. Mr. Le Bas is also fair-haired and light skinned. He grew up on a farm in the south of England, went to Oxford University and now edits a Roma magazine in London called Travellers' Times.
"I'm a blond person from a gypsy family; my hair and eye colour were different from many of my relatives," he said. "It's a ridiculous idea that we all look the same. We look about as similar as all Italians look similar … There's a lack of will to understand the difference."
Mr. Le Bas said life for most Roma in Europe is bleak. Many live in Third World conditions, cut off from the rest of society and unable to find work. "It's difficult to overstate how brutal it has been out there," he said.
Discrimination and mistrust of Roma has been around for centuries. They arrived in Europe more than 500 years ago from India and today number roughly 12 million across the continent, making Roma the largest ethnic minority. Their life in Europe has never been easy. Roma were slaves for hundreds of years in many countries, sent to extermination camps by the Nazis and are still labelled "mentally diseased" by some schools in parts of Eastern Europe. That history has left Romas largely on the outside of most societies, leaving them to make do in often squalid conditions.
Another challenge to understanding the Roma is the patchwork make-up of their community. While generally sharing the same language and culture, there are dozens of subsets of Roma, from gypsies and travellers (there are many travellers in Ireland and Britain who are not Roma) to those who remain rooted in their communities.
There are some signs of hope – at the local level, as in Glasgow which recently conducted a survey of Roma in an effort to better integrate them into the community, and at the level of the European Union level, which has developed several strategies for Roma integration and called on member states to come up with plans to promote the inclusion of Roma.
"In the last few years there has been a general acknowledgment at the European level about the serious situation and serous challenges that the Roma community is facing," said Dezideriu Gergely, executive director of the European Roma Rights Centre, a Budapest-based organization that works on Roma issues in about a dozen countries. "This is progress on the one hand."
However, at the national level, Mr. Gergely said, the EU's efforts have been largely ignored and anti-Roma sentiment is rising. He is hoping that the story of Maria, and the fact that none of the children were kidnapped, will help people better understand the Roma community and the challenges it faces.
"The lesson learned here is about prejudice toward Roma," he said. "You see how embedded it is."