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Greece tries to identify girl found in Roma Gypsy camp

By Heather Saul

Greek police who raided the camp of a Roma Gypsy community in search of drugs and weapons have discovered a four-year-old girl they fear may have been trafficked or abducted by the family she was found with.

Police had entered the camp in search of drugs and weapons as part of a crackdown on illegal activity in the area.

 

Their suspicions were initially raised after finding the girl, who was going by the name of 'Maria', when they realised she looked nothing like the couple she was living with, officials said on Friday.

 

DNA tests have since proved she was not their biological child, leading authorities to question if the girl has been trafficked or abducted into the settlement.

 

A hunt for the child's real family is now underway. Greek authorities have requested assistance from Interpol and international groups for lost and abused children.

 

"Her features suggest that she might be from an eastern or northern (European) country," regional police chief Panayiotis Tziovaras said of the girl.

 

According to Greek police, the mother claimed to have given birth to six children in less than 10 months, while 10 of the 14 children the couple registered as their own are unaccounted for.

 

The charity now caring for the child said she is "confused" and "shocked" by the abrupt changes in her environment. She was being used to beg on the streets of Larissa, because she was "blonde and cute" the director of the charity believes.

 

As Greek officials now try to establish the girl's true identity and whether the couple have any links with child trafficking rings, experts are using the case to highlight the severe weaknesses in the country's birth registration system.

 

The child was found Wednesday near Farsala in central Greece. Police say they also found drugs and unregistered firearms in other parts of the Gypsy — or Roma — settlement, which is about 170 miles north of Athens.

 

A Child's Smile, the charity caring for the girl, praised an observant prosecutor who was present at the camp raid along with dozens of police. "She saw a little blond head poking out from under the bedclothes," Costas Giannopoulos told private Skai TV. "It struck her as odd, and that's how it all started."

 

The young girl had been registered in Athens, from where the couple had obtained a birth certificate. Giannopoulos' charity said none of the children declared missing in Greece matched the girl's profile, and that she is undergoing medical examinations though she seems in overall good health.

 

"We are shocked by how easy it is for people to register children as their own," Giannopoulos said. "There is much more to investigate. There are other registered children that were not found in the settlement, and I believe police will unravel a thread that doesn't just have to do with the girl."

 

The couple, a 39-year-old man and a 40-year-old woman, were arrested and charged with abducting a minor. The suspects are alleged to have offered conflicting initial accounts about how they came to have the child — that the girl was found in a blanket, that she was handed to them by strangers or that she had a foreign father.

 

But their lawyer, Marietta Palavra, said they took her out of charity, through an intermediary, while she was just days old from a foreign stranger who said she could not support her daughter.

 

Palavra acknowledged that Roma and other Greeks have been known to make multiple registrations of children to get more welfare benefits from the state, but insisted that she was not saying her clients had been motivated by that.

 

"Just because (the suspect) had forged documents, it doesn't make her a kidnapper," she said. "The couple loved the girl as if she were their own."

 

Greece's Roma community has for centuries been underprivileged and exposed to poverty and discrimination. According to the London-based Minority Rights Group, some 80 per cent of the country's 300,000 Roma are illiterate. Some resort to criminal activity, engendering resentment from the larger Greek community.

 

In a statement, police said the couple had illicitly registered different numbers of children with authorities in three different parts of Greece.

 

A City of Athens statement on Friday complained that "extremely problematic and antiquated" Greek law allows people to register babies as their own on the basis of one person's declaration backed by two witnesses. The statement said that, in practice, parents can delay registering their children until they turn 18.

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