For the last week, a blond girl named Maria became the poster child for missing children in Europe. Police took her from a Roma camp in Northern Greece during a raid while they searched for guns and drugs.
She was hiding under a dirty blanket, they said. Greek media openly suggested the Roma couple caring for her had snatched her from a northern or eastern European family.
One Greek newspaper called her the Blonde Angel. Who would claim her?
Thousands of calls from around the world poured into Smile of the Child, the private Greek charity where Maria is now staying.
"Here was a missing child looking for her parents, instead of the other way around," says Delphine Moralis, secretary-general at Missing Children Europe in Brussels. "Parents who have a child that is missing really see this is a message of hope for finding their own child again."
Indeed, on Thursday, Portuguese police re-opened the case of Madeleine McCann, the 3-year-old British girl who disappeared in May 2007 from Praia de Luz in the Algarve, where her family was on vacation.
Huge Numbers Of Missing Children
At least 250,000 children go missing in Europe every year, according to the European Commission. Up to 60 percent of those children are teenage runaways who flee abuse or conflict at home — and are usually found. Parental abductions also account for some of the missing children.
Criminal abductions by a stranger account for between 2 and 5 percent of cases reported through the Missing Children Europe's 116 000 hotline, which operates in at least 19 countries.
"Criminal abductions are usually the ones that get the most media attention," Moralis says. "But the scope of the problem is much bigger, and it's underestimated and badly understood."
For instance, up to 10 percent of missing children are migrants from impoverished or war-ravaged countries who have crossed into Europe without a parent or guardian.
"Until the Syrian refugee crisis exploded, the most common refugee I encountered in Europe was a 15 or 16-year-old Afghan boy," says Nils Muižnieks, a Latvian political scientist who serves as Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. "I've met them in Greek parks, in Austrian reception centers. They're often traumatized and vulnerable and fall victim to exploitation."
In Greece, many teenage migrants face brutality and repeated detention by police and state authorities, so few actually apply for asylum, according to Human Rights Watch. And there's a huge shortage of adequate places to house them, including group homes. Because of rising anti-immigrant sentiment, there's also little will to house foreign children with Greek children in care centers.
"Many of these children disappear," say Moralis, of Missing Children Europe. "They end up being exploited in different kinds of ways: sexual exploitation, prostitution, economic exploitation in terms of forced begging, drug smuggling and forced marriage ... even forced donation of organs."
Roma Children Are Vulnerable
Impoverished children — including the Roma — are often the most vulnerable, says Muižnieks, the human rights commissioner. He says he was disgusted by the way media, as well as the Greek authorities, framed the story of Maria as a "child stolen by Gypsies."
"The Roma face the most discrimination of any ethnic group in Europe," he says.
And that discrimination often means that Roma children are isolated and even ignored, says Maria Kratz-Larsen, who runs The Children's Ark, a Roma education program near Corinth, Greece. "Sometimes they are simply invisible," she says.
Indeed, between 1998 and 2002, an astonishing 502 of 661 Albanian Roma children "disappeared" from a Greek state-run institution in Aghia Varvara, Athens. A 2004 report by the Greek Ombudsman suggests that the children may have been handed over to human traffickers. This summer, Maria Yiannakaki, a parliamentary deputy from the Democratic Left, asked for an investigation into the children's fate.
Meanwhile, the fate of Maria is still up in the air, even if, as it turns out, she wasn't missing at all.
Tests Confirm Parents Of Maria
DNA tests confirmed Friday that she's the child of Sasha Ruseva and Atanas Rusev, a Bulgarian Roma couple who worked as farmhands picking olives in Greece a few years ago.
Ruseva gave birth to a girl during that time but was too poor to take care of the baby and left her in the care of another Roma couple, she told the Bulgarian media. Roma often raise children communally, with families taking in children who are not their own.
"We gave her, we gifted her, without money," Sasha Ruseva told Bulgaria's TV7 on Thursday. "I didn't have any money. I didn't have any food to give to the kid."
For now, Maria remains in the care of the Greek charity, Smile of the Child, which calls her case a "humanitarian issue."
Meanwhile, the Greek Roma couple who had been raising her now want to formally adopt her, even though Greek authorities have charged them with abduction.
"They truly and ardently want her back," their lawyer, Costas Katsavos, told The Associated Press.
Moralis hopes the interest in Maria will force the European Union to improve its policies on all missing children, especially those escaping poverty and wars.
"There is so much more that needs to be done," she says. "And there are so many other children who will never make it to the news."
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