Amid Suspicion, Europe's Roma Struggle to Find Home

Roma couple charged with child abduction (Getty) The recent discovery of a pale, blond little girl hiding under a blanket in a Roma encampment in Greece has spotlighted a group perceived by many as "Gypsies," a term without much context and cultural immediacy in America. But for Europeans, issues surrounding of the Romani people — their identity and how they fit into today's society — are very real and extremely controversial.

Related: Greece Trying to Identify Girl Found in Roma Camp

The girl, known as Maria and called the "blonde angel" by the Greek media, was found when police raided a settlement near the city of Larissa, about 170 miles north of Athens, looking for drugs, weapons, and other contraband. She was the only fair, blue-eyed child in a family of 13 kids, and her parents offered conflicting stories about how she had ended up in their care. On Monday, Christos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulou were charged with abducting a minor. While there are countless unanswered questions surrounding the case — for one, the births of 10 of the other children were all registered during a 12-month period — the couple's lawyer is saying the girl, who is about 5, was unofficially adopted from an impoverished young Bulgarian woman. A local leader calls it a case of discrimination. "They accuse the Roma of everything—of stealing, of snatching kids," Babis Dimitriou, the head of the Roma community in Larissa, told Reuters, "Do these things only happen among our race? This is a huge insult for us."

Related: Mystery Girl in Roma Camp Abandoned by Mother: Lawyers

The Roma, a broad ethnic designation that encompasses a diverse group of people, including Manush,  Ashkali, Sinti and others, trace their origins back to India, and DNA testing has confirmed they are from the Punjab region. It's speculated that they migrated to Europe starting about 1,500 years ago. They are unrelated to the people of Romania, although more than 500,000 live in that country. When they first began to trickle into Europe, it was believed they had come from Egypt, hence the name "Gypsy," which derives from the Middle English for "Egyptian" and is now considered derogatory by some.

According to the European Commission, there are about 10 to12 million Roma living in Europe, which makes them the largest ethnic minority on the continent, and 90 percent live below the poverty line. Amnesty International says they face broad discrimination including being forcibly evicted from settlements and forced into segregated schools. In 2004, the commission found that some Romani women had been subjected to coerced sterilization in a number of countries, including the Czech Republic, Germany and Switzerland. Their marginalization and persecution date back centuries. For hundreds of years in the Balkans, they were prohibited from marrying outside of their ethnic group and many were sold into slavery. It's estimated that 25 to 75 percent were wiped out during Hitler's mass exterminations in World War II.

While the European Union has outlined policies intended to tackle poverty among the Roma discrimination against them, individual countries are struggling with how to deal with their Roma populations. The recent case of Leonarda Dibrani, a schoolgirl who was hauled off a bus in France in front of her classmates and deported to her former home in Kosovo after her family lost a legal battle for asylum, touched a raw nerve in France and ignited student protests. (Leonarda's parents were attacked in the street upon their return to Kosovo.) In 2012, France increased its deportation of Roma by over 12 percent. According to the Independent, Northern European governments have geared up campaigns to prevent Roma immigration, as hostility against them, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, has increased during the economic downturn.

Some Roma have resorted to criminal behavior — any visitor to Rome or Madrid has probably been warned about the risk of being pick pocketed by ragtag groups of children dispatched to target tourists. In France, a gang of 27 Roma is currently being tried for selling child brides and organizing a widespread syndicate of thieves. Livia Jaroka, an anthropologist and the only Romani member of the European Parliament, told the New York Times that years of intolerance and bigotry have led to crushing poverty, substance abuse, and epidemic unemployment. "The cultural explanation for Roma criminality is nonsense," she said. "It is about economics." While the Roma may be Europe's last nomads, their transience is perhaps less due to traditional ways of life than decades — if not centuries — of hostility toward them putting down roots.

Also on Shine:

Mother's Heartwarming Response to Son Who Came Out on Facebook

Brave 6-Year-Old Battles Same Brain Disease as Her Dad

What Plus-Size Women Really Want to be Called