A few weeks before Maria, the blond child found living in a Roma camp in central Greece, grabbed the headlines, public attention had briefly focused on a different girl of roughly the same age. She was not blond, she had long black hair and dark skin, and was playing the accordion while sitting on a pedestrian walkway beneath the Acropolis. Associated Press photographer Dimitris Messinis had captured the moment when a female shopowner, apparently annoyed by the presence of the little Roma girl, pushed the child with her foot to send her away. The photo, which quickly went viral, reflected the general attitude toward Greece’s Roma, a nomadic yet mostly unwelcome people.
The European Union’s most recent Minority and Discrimination Survey (EU-MIDIS), which was published in 2009, found that Greece has the highest level of discrimination against the Roma, who, according to estimates, number around 250,000 in the country. According to the survey, 55 percent said they had experienced discrimination over the previous 12 months. Thirty percent reported discriminatory treatment in private businesses and another 24 percent at work or while they were searching for work. Seventy-eight percent said they did not report cases of discrimination because “they were not confident that the police would be able to do anything.” Furthermore, 56 percent said that they had been stopped for a police inspection at least once over the previous 12 months while 69 percent said they had been the target of ethnic profiling. According to the EU report, “Greece stands out… as having a highly policed Roma community that considers its encounters with the police to be discriminatory.”
Meanwhile, Roma camps in Greece remain largely uncharted. Similarly, many of their everyday challenges remain unreported. According to data provided by the international Romani Network following a study that was conducted in cooperation with the Greek Labor Ministry, 83 percent of Roma tent camps are not connected to the national power grid. The figure is 22 percent for mixed settlements (which consist of an approximately equal combination of houses and makeshift constructs) and 14 percent for caravan camps. Thirty-one of 37 settlements do not have water supply (the rate for mixed settlements is 16 out of 46) while 26 of 37 settlements have no sewage facilities.
According to the same report, Roma camps are usually located in places which are deemed unsuitable for housing development – near rubbish dumps or slaughterhouses and often next to sewer and drainage systems.
Data on epidemic diseases among Greece’s Roma communities are also worrying. A recent study of 116 households in Aghia Sophia in Thessaloniki and Drosero in Xanthi (carried out under the scientific supervision of Professor Martha Moraitou of the Alexander Technological Educational Institute of Thessaloniki) indicated that the incomplete implementation of hygiene rules and poor nutritional habits have evident consequences on the health of Roma across the age spectrum.
Researchers found that 30.2 percent of Roma children consumed no milk and 83.5 percent ate junk food seven times a week, while 70 percent said that they cooked with palm or sunflower oil instead of olive oil. Also, more than 15 percent of respondents said that they did not know, or they did not recall, if their children had been vaccinated. Moreover, 44.4 percent have no knowledge of the Pap test, while just 23.3 percent said they had undergone a cervical smear (the figure for mammography was even lower at 11.1 percent). According to the same data, 41.1 percent of respondents said they were suffering from a chronic illness while 73 percent said they had problems with dental hygiene. Only 23.3 percent said they brushed their teeth on a daily basis.