News / Europe

    'Maria' Mystery Lifts Lid on Bumbling Greek State

    A four-year-old girl, found living with a Roma couple in central Greece, is seen in a handout photo distributed by the Greek police and obtained by Reuters, Oct. 18, 2013.
    A four-year-old girl, found living with a Roma couple in central Greece, is seen in a handout photo distributed by the Greek police and obtained by Reuters, Oct. 18, 2013.
    Reuters
    She has two identities and lived off thousands of euros a month in child benefits for nearly a dozen offspring that appear to exist only on paper, and but for one little girl would have continued the fraud Greek police say she perpetrated for two decades.
     
    The girl is Maria, or the “blonde angel without an identity” as she has come to be known, and the woman is a 40-year-old Roma who claimed to be her mother but has been charged, along with her 39-year-old partner, with the girl's abduction.
     
    The mystery surrounding Maria's real identity since she was discovered peeking out from under a blanket at a Roma settlement in central Greece has made headlines across the world and prompted a global search for her biological parents.
     
    And in a debt-laden country eager to show foreign lenders it is reforming its state apparatus, the case has lifted the lid on a bumbling bureaucracy and patchy system of controls that allowed the girl to slip through the cracks.
     
    So deep are the cracks in the country's birth registration system that it was “pure luck” that Maria's case was uncovered at all, said Konstantinos Tzanakoulis, mayor of Larissa, the provincial capital of the region where Maria was found.
     
    “Who knows how many such cases exist?” he asked, blaming a system he said was riddled with loopholes. “We may never know.”
     
    After Maria's discovery, police found that her purported mother had registered one ID card and six children in Larissa, starting from 1993. In nearby Trikala, using a fake identity, she registered four more.
     
    A few dozen kilometers away in Farsala, which houses the Roma camp, her partner registered another four children. Police say at least 10 children registered by the couple are unaccounted for and may not exist.
     
    That allowed the couple to claim 2,790 euros in child benefits a month in a country dependent on EU/IMF loans and desperate to show it is making progress on tackling such fraud.
     
    With no national birth registry until May and with some municipalities yet to move their files to the database, there had been no way to cross-check the births, officials said.
     
    Indeed, the births and child registrations all appeared legal until the woman's arrest, when police realized she appeared to have given birth to six children in under 10 months.
     
    The couple have been jailed pending trial on charges of abducting a minor and procuring fake documents, which they deny.

    Fertile ground
     
    Maria was discovered during a surprise raid by police looking for drugs and weapons on the Roma settlement.
     
    The couple say Maria's real mother gave her up willingly after birth because she could not raise her - an adoption that was “not exactly legal” but consensual, their lawyers said.
     
    Officials say Maria's case is not isolated, though data is scarce.
     
    Sifting through piles of papers on birth registration laws strewn across his desk, Tzanakoulis said the extent of the fraud carried out by the Roma couple showed the state's weaknesses.
     
    “It was a complete shock,” he said. “The level of fraud would have been the last thing to cross anyone's mind.”
     
    In this case, the woman was able to declare Maria's birth nearly four years after the fact, even though home births must be registered within 100 days. She even used her own fake ID as one of the two witnesses needed to prove the girl was born at home.
     
    The mayor of Athens has since launched a probe into the local registry there and suspended two employees who dealt with such cases. Greece's top court has also ordered an investigation into all birth certificates issued in the past six years on the basis of a signed declaration rather than a hospital birth.
     
    The local arm of the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) says the lack of controls makes Greece fertile ground for possible trafficking.
     
    Its head, Labros Kanellopoulos, estimates that thousands of missing children, mainly from eastern Europe, may be victims of trafficking, but there is no data on official numbers.
     
    “There is a lack of checks, and the onus of responsibility lies with the police and local authorities, who have not shown enough interest,” he said.
     
    Police, who believe Maria is either eastern or northern European, have focused their investigation on whether she was trafficked rather than abducted, a police official said.
     
    In Farsala, mayor Aris Karahalios says the case is a chance for Greece to finally push ahead with reforms it has promised.
     
    “The system is anachronistic and a symptom of our entire society, which only deals with things on the surface and pushes everything else under the carpet,” he said.

    You May Like

    Russia Sees Brexit Impact Widespread but Temporary

    Officials, citizens react to Britain’s vote to exit European Union with mix of pleasure, understanding and concern

    Obama Encourages Entrepreneurs to Seek Global Interconnection

    President tells entrepreneurs at global summit at Stanford University to find mentors, push ahead with new ideas on day after Britain voters decide to exit EU

    Video Some US Gun Owners Support Gun Control

    Defying the stereotype, Dave Makings says he'd give up his assault rifle for a comprehensive program to reduce gun violence

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Unchartered Territoryi
    X
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Unchartered Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.
    Video

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora