How far can racism go?

Has anyone ever told you that you look like your Mom; that you look like your Dad? At some point in life, doubtlessly someone has mentioned your grandmother’s chin or your uncle’s eyes- and how you resemble them. Maybe you’re one of the people who look nothing like their parents. Maybe you have children who look nothing like you. 

Maybe you should avoid Ireland

This week, my country hit the international headlines for all the wrong reasons. Members of the Irish police force, An Garda Síochána, arrived at the door of a house in Tallaght in the South of Dublin, where they took a seven year old girl from her Roma family. She has blonde hair and blue eyes. They did not. 

The reports coming from Greece of Maria a young child living in a Roma camp with people discovered not to be her parents and termed the "Blonde Angel" in the media perhaps fuelled the frenzy that followed in Ireland and across the world. Taken away for DNA testing, the girl from Tallaght was placed in the care of the Health Service Executive (HSE) for two nights. 

There was national outcry - for more than one reason. A child was taken from her family just because she looked different? Racist! On the other side, commentators questioned the criminal connections in the Roma community. Kidnappers! 

Once the story had spread past Ireland into the United Kingdom, Sweden, Canada, France and Australia, questions were still not answered. That’s when the story grew some more- because it appeared that a second Roma child, a two year old boy, had been removed from his family in County Westmeath He was also subject to DNA testing and was then returned to his biological parents.

Newsfeeds exploded. Twitter made the Roma a trending topic and every news outlet had a comment to make or a card to play with. By evening, the truth came out; the little girl from Tallaght had been needlessly removed from her two biological parents. Traumatised, she was returned home under the cover of darkness, while a crowd of over forty journalists waited outside her home. 

There is a huge lesson to be learned here about the media machine- and the degenerative nature of racial profiling. Nils Muižnieks the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement condemning the ethnicity reports that emerged from these cases. In reality, the issue is even bigger than that. In a rush to get the most emotive, most salacious part of the story, journalists all over the world neglected to ask questions about the laws that were applied, why they were applied and how. 

Law or arbitrariness?

Though in the Westmeath case, details are hard to come by, the Garda Síochána removed the child in Tallaght from her family under s.12 of the Child Care Act 1991 “where (…) there are reasonable grounds for believing that there is an immediate and serious risk to the health or welfare of a child and where it would not be sufficient for the protection of that child to wait for an Emergency Care Order.” 

The question that requires answering is where is this immediate and serious risk to this child’s health? Given that she had siblings who lived in the same house, why were none of them removed? And why is it that the Gardaí have such sweeping powers to take away a child in a State that proclaims in its own Constitution to protect the status of the Family as a unit. 

The Garda Síochána have not stated that this immediate risk was evidenced. The HSE have also made no statement. The Minister for Justice has only been able to state his belief that the police acted “in good faith.” This child was identified by a Facebook user in a message to ‘Paul Connolly Investigates’, a program on TV3. A researcher received the message and passed it to Mr Connolly, who in turn notified the state authorities. 

The message read “Hi Paul, Today was on the news that blond child found in Roma camp in Greece. There is also little girl living in Roma house in Tallaght and she is blond and blue eyes. Her name is [redacted] and the address is [redacted]. I am from [redacted] myself and it’s a big problem there missing kids. The Romas robing them to get child benefit in Europe.[sic]”

On the basis of this message, a child was removed from her family and held from them for two days. They provided a birth certificate and passport for her; the passport featured a photograph of her as a baby and so was deemed inadequate. The birth certificate was not sufficient proof. The parents also provided details of the child’s birth in a Dublin hospital. The hospital could not immediately find the records. The child was taken away. 

Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. The truth is that this was a case of racial profiling. Members of the police force made an assessment, factored in ethnicity, and made a decision on that basis. 

But if the Garda Síochána are guilty of racial profiling, so is the world media. I can only name two journalists who asked questions concerning the application of the legal procedures; just two journalists of thousands asked the questions that will now form part of a review.

Apart from the evident distress and trauma for a seven-year-old child who was torn from her parents without warning because of a bigoted message on Facebook, and aside from the racist assumptions and despicable headlines, there is a wider question here about how we treat the Roma. 

A nomadic people originating in India, the Roma have been part of Europe for hundreds of years. For those hundreds of years, they have been prosecuted. Faced with vile hate crimes, forced evictions, mass expulsions and ardent racism, the Roma also suffered in the Holocaust, where estimates of fatalities for them reach up to 800,000. They call it the Porajmos- the Devouring. A people without a nation, the Roma are the subject of myths and legends that provide a punishing and toxic image of an entire community. 

That can’t go on. Members of this people steal and beg; this is true. But they are also isolated, alone, vilified. There is a mutual responsibility in this- and the majority population has a lot to answer for. Now is the time to admit that we are wrong, that we were wrong, and that we owe an apology. We owe an apology not just to two children and their families from the suburbs of Ireland - but to the wider Roma population. We need to live up to our responsibility to help them integrate and thrive.

The next time someone tells you that you look like your father, think about the presumptions and dark suspicions that ripped children from their families in Ireland this week. Listen to the sirens going off in your head. We have a serious problem here and we need to fix it before it’s too late.   

Edited by: Laura Davidel 
Photo credits: Natmandu