Greece's child-trafficking problem
21 October 2013 Last updated at 14:19 ET
Greece's child-trafficking problem
By Giorgos Christides
Officials believe "Maria" may have been a victim of abduction, as Mark Lowen reports
A Roma couple have now been formally charged in Greece with abducting a young blonde, blue-eyed girl called Maria, who was found in a Roma camp in the centre of the country last Thursday.
Although the couple insist the girl was informally adopted and not abducted, the case has thrown the spotlight on the wider issue of child trafficking in Greece.
Criminal organisations bring hundreds of children from the Balkans to Greece, where they are subjected to forced labour, sex-trafficking or sold to couples, in Greece or abroad, in illegal adoption schemes.
"There are currently 3,000 children transited through Greece by child-trafficking rings. The children originate mainly from Bulgaria, Romania and other Balkan countries," says Lambros Kanellopoulos, the president of the UN children's agency Unicef in Greece.
Mr Kanellopoulos says Greece's status as a trafficking hub can be attributed to two factors: its geographical location, and its ineffective prevention and prosecution procedures.
"The system is full of holes," he says.
According to the latest US state department report on human trafficking, in 2012 Greek authorities identified only 94 victims.
Babies as 'commodities'
Mr Kanellopoulos says traffickers often use Roma communities because they live "largely under the radar of society".
A senior police officer involved in fighting human trafficking described to the BBC a recent case solved by the police, which he said was typical of how the system worked.
"A Roma woman from Bulgaria came to Thessaloniki and gave birth in a public hospital," the officer said.
"She was accompanied by a member of the criminal ring, who posed as her relative. He paid her 3,000 euros (£2,500), took her baby, and then sold the child to a Greek couple."
Childless parents pay as much as 30,000 euros for a baby.
Police sources say that in most cases the children are not abducted, but bought and sold "like commodities" for a few thousand euros.
Those children who are not sold often end up on the streets, begging, stealing and working. They are a common sight in Greek streets, known as "the traffic-light children".
People walk past newspapers on a stand which feature front pages reporting on the story a four-year-old girl Maria, 21 October
Maria's plight has been covered widely in the Greek press
The luckier children are taken care of by charities like Smile of the Child, the organisation that has received temporary custody of Maria.
"We are currently taking care of many children who came to Greece as unaccompanied minors or who where victims of child-trafficking," says the charity's Panayiotis Pardalis.
The Roma community in Greece, which according to various estimates numbers 150,000-300,000 members, feels wronged.
"All this talk about our communities being incubators of child trafficking is nonsense," says Antonis Tsakiris of the Panhellenic Association of Greek Roma Associations.
"The Roma are victims of prejudice and media hype. We are the first to condemn cases of illegal adoptions and trafficking, but these are single events."
The case of Maria also brought to light the broken-down system of child registrations in Greece.
The Greek authorities say the Roma couple were in possession of false papers which suggested the woman had given birth to six children within a 10-month period.
The Greek birth-registration system is easily exploited. Parents can register the birth of a child by simply submitting solemn statements of two individuals confirming the birth to local authorities.
There is also no way to cross-check registrations, as municipal archives are not connected, allowing the same person to keep multiple registrations with different municipalities.
Now the government says it is determined to close the loopholes.
Deputy Interior Minister Leonidas Grigorakos told the BBC that he had prepared an amendment to be submitted to parliament that makes DNA paternity testing mandatory for children born outside hospitals.
"Undoubtedly the system and the child registration law were problematic. We are now changing that," says Mr Grigorakos.
He added that he had ordered an administrative inquiry that would investigate whether public servants were guilt of any wrongdoing in Maria's case.
Mr Grigorakos added that the Greek government would raise the issue of the Roma communities as a top priority in January 2014, when Greece assumed the rotating presidency of the EU.