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Roma communities around Europe are being stereotyped and scapegoated in the wake of recent child abduction allegations in Ireland and Greece, the head of a Roma rights organisation said Thursday.
"We urge the media and authorities not to assign collective responsibility to Roma communities on the basis of individual cases," Dezideriu Gergely, director of the European Roma Rights Centre, (ERRC) told AFP.
The cases had encouraged stereotypes such as "Roma communities steal babies" and an attitude that "Roma are guilty until proven innocent", he said.
Authorities should avoid racial profiling and act on the basis of evidence rather than perception, he added.
A seven-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy were each removed from their biological Roma families in Ireland this week after public tip-offs that later proved to be false.
The removals sparked warnings about racial profiling following the case of a blonde girl found in a Roma camp in Greece who was unrelated to the people she was living with.
The children taken from families in Ireland were later returned to them after tests confirmed their biological links.
"The best interests of the children of course need to come first, and if someone breaks the law he needs to come before the law," Gergely said.
However, there is a difference between individual and group action, he added.
"If we substitute in German or French rather than Roma into the debate, would that mean that all Germans are guilty of say corruption because one or two were accused?" he said.
In a statement earlier this week the Budapest-based ERRC called on the media to report on the cases from different angles.
"Irresponsible reporting could have severe, negative consequences for Roma families across Europe," the statement said.
"Criminality is not related to ethnicity," it added.
Gergely said authorities around Europe were now expected to search for children without the physical features of their parents.
However, many Roma communities in Europe do not have dark skin, have blue or green eyes, or are of mixed race, he said.
He said the removal of a child by authorities should be the last resort but that the Irish approach was: "We'll take your DNA to see if the children belong to you or not."
Gergely also said there was a danger that extreme-right individuals, politicians, or groups would exploit the cases.
"For them, this is evidence that Roma are criminals, should be put in prison, cannot live with society, or even in some cases, as an excuse to take justice into their own hands," he said.