Margareta Matache, FXB Fellow and member of the FXB Roma project team, spoke with Al Jazeera America about the recent Roma controversies in Europe. Two Roma families in Ireland and Greece were discovered with blonde, fair-skinned children in their midst — and were promptly separated from the children and investigated for kidnapping. The cases attracted widespread international press, only to have DNA tests reveal that the children were in fact biologically related. The scandal has focused attention on the pervasive and discriminatory stereotypes of the Roma. Matache answers some common questions (below) on the largest minority in Europe.
What are the most important things that people should know about Roma?
Our origins trace back to the territories of northern India centuries ago, but nowadays we are an ethnic minority group without a country or land to claim as our own, with a population of about 14 million worldwide. The majority of Roma, about 10-12 million, live in Europe. About one million Roma live in the United States and the rest live primarily in the Middle East and in Latin America.
In Europe, we share similar historical inequalities with other minority groups. The Roma were enslaved for centuries, targeted by the Nazis in the Holocaust, and forcibly assimilated during the communist era.
The Roma are still far from equal to their non-Roma counterparts. Roma remain segregated in school and discriminated against in the labor market. Most importantly, policymakers throughout Europe have not taken effective measures to ensure the social inclusion of the Roma – representing bias at the highest echelons of power.
What are some common misconceptions that people have about the Roma?
A strong belief in Roma inferiority persists, and has been perpetuated by outspoken opinion-makers with racist views.
We are often referred to as Gypsies, a term that I personally consider one of the worse racial slurs used to define us. In addition, a common and pervasive prejudice that accompanies the educational achievement gaps of Roma is to blame Roma culture; Roma families are dismissed as not valuing education. In reality, children face discrimination in and out of the classroom, teachers have lower expectations of them, and poor academic performance results.
At the other extreme we seem to be quite exotic for many people: fortunetellers, child thieves, nomadic bohemian life.
Has there been violence against the Roma?
Violent attacks against Roma, hate speech and hate crimes have recently been documented in European Union countries. Paramilitary/neo-Nazis/far right extremist groups has been created in Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Bulgaria. Some of these groups organize military training for their members and some have been involved in killings of Roma individuals.
How has the “Case of Maria” played out in Roma communities?
The current abduction debate has contributed to the reinforcement of an old-fashioned prejudice of the Roma as being child thieves. And prejudice is far from being harmless; it drives stigma and discrimination, and slows down the process of social inclusion.
Along with historical and current inequalities, the Roma lack a solid civil rights Roma movement to voice their opinions and concerns and to countervail these negative images.
 See reports and briefings of European Roma Rights Center, Amnesty International, Romani CRISS, European Network against Racism