PARIS — For centuries across Europe, children were raised on folk tales with a disturbing message: Do not wander into the woods or you risk being snatched by Gypsies.
Such a warning seems like an anachronism from medieval times. But the stereotype of the child-stealing Gypsy has been reawakened since last week when a Roma couple in Greece were jailed on accusations that they had abducted a blond, green-eyed child called Maria — dubbed "the blond angel" in the Greek media. This week, two blond, blue-eyed Roma children were taken from their parents in Ireland following suspicions they had been abducted, too.
The children in Ireland were quickly returned to their families after DNA testing confirmed that the Roma were their parents. In Greece, the police confirmed Friday that Maria was the child of a Roma couple from Bulgaria. An investigation continues into whether Maria was sold, adopted or given to the couple as they have claimed.
Whatever the outcome, the Roma say that it is they who now live in fear — of having their children snatched for no reason other than their cultural identity or skin color. The cases, they say, have helped fan a sometimes violent backlash against the roughly 11 million Roma across Europe. In an era of budget cuts and high unemployment, politicians on the left and the right have singled out the Roma as emblematic of the problems of illegal immigration and questioned whether they can ever be integrated.
"Imagine if the situation were reversed and the children were brown and the parents were white. Would they have ever been taken away?" said Dezideriu Gergely, director of the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest. "The most dangerous consequence of the hysteria is that now we have to live in fear that our children can be removed from us on the basis of a wrong perception. No one should be profiled on the basis of their ethnicity."
Gergely, a human rights lawyer who has a Roma father and a white Romanian mother, noted that many Roma, who arrived in Europe from India centuries ago and are also called Gypsies, came from mixed families.
He has light skin and blue eyes, which he said punctured the widespread stereotype that Roma have dark hair and dusky complexions.
"It is mystifying that those accused of criminality are seen to represent the Roma community," he said, noting that if people engaged in human trafficking it was because of severe poverty, not their cultural background. "Applying collective responsibility to the entire Roma community is unacceptable."
Despite such warnings, anti-Roma sentiment appears to be spreading. On Wednesday, Serbian media reported that over the weekend a group of skinheads in Novi Sad, in central Serbia, had tried to abduct a Roma child in front of his house because his skin was fairer than that of his father, Stefan Nikolic.
In Italy, the anti-immigrant Northern League responded to news of Maria's supposed abduction this week by demanding inspections of all Roma communities to check for missing children. Gianluca Buonanno, a member of the Northern League in the Italian lower house, said he had submitted a petition to the Interior Ministry demanding identification of camp occupants.
Rights groups say violence against Roma already was intensifying. This month, a woman threw acid at a 2-year-old Roma boy and his mother in Naples, according to the European Roma Research Center. In Hungary, at least seven Roma were killed between 2008 and 2010, and Roma leaders have counted dozens of firebomb attacks in the past.
In Greece, where the Golden Dawn movement has been fanning anti-immigrant fervor, the head of the Greek Union of Roma, Yiannis Halilopoulos, said the sensational coverage in the Greek media and the racial profiling that followed the removal of Maria had "taken us back 100 years."
"For the first time in years, I hear people shouting 'Gypsies, thieves!' when I walk down the street," he said.
He said many children in Roma settlements had light skin and blond hair and blue eyes. "What are you going to do? Take them all in because they don't 'match' their parents?" he said. "That's not racist, that's stupid."