Girl found in Greece gives hope to parents of missing children

PARIS (AFP) - The discovery of a young blonde girl in a Roma camp in Greece has raised the hopes of many desperate parents of missing children across Europe.

The Greek charity, the Smile of the Child, that has taken in the girl has received more than 8,000 calls from around the world since she was found by police last week in a Roma camp in central Greece.

"It is often parents who have lost a child and who hope, who are looking for some similarity between their child and the child that was found," said Ms Delphine Moralis of Missing Children Europe.

"Many are calling saying 'Is that my little girl?'" she said.

Initially thought to be four years old, but later confirmed from dental checks to be five or six, the girl was kept by a Roma couple who were placed in pre-trial detention on Monday for allegedly abducting her.

The couple, a 39-year-old man and his 40-year-old wife, deny the charge and claim that she was voluntarily handed over by her Bulgarian Roma mother who could not care for her.

Greek authorities are investigating nearly a dozen missing child cases from at least four countries in connection with the little girl, including cases in the United States, Sweden, Poland and France.

Cross-border police agency Interpol has sent out the girl's photo and DNA profile to all of its 190 member countries.

It has also led to a case that has sparked comparisons in Ireland where police have removed a seven-year-old girl with blonde hair and blue eyes from a Roma family living in a Dublin suburb and briefly took a two-year-old boy into care.

For some parents, the case has raised the issue of alleged abductions of children by the Roma community.

"My family and I are extremely delighted at the news that a four-year-old girl has been found in a gypsy camp," Kerry Needham, whose son Ben was just 21 months old when he vanished on the Greek island of Kos in 1991, told ITV.

The youngster, from Sheffield in Britain, vanished after travelling to Kos with his mother and grandparents, who were renovating a farmhouse in the village of Iraklise.

"We have always believed that Ben's abduction was gypsy-related," Needham said. "We hope that the investigation into Ben's disappearance will now be looked at again." But Roma groups cautioned against drawing premature conclusions and tarring the entire community with allegations of abductions.

"If a crime has been committed in Greece, and this is still by no means clear, those who committed it should be treated as individuals, not as representatives of their ethnicity," the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre said in a statement.

"Such a case could arise in any racial, ethnic, religious or national group," it said.

About 250,000 children go missing in Europe every year, Moralis said, though many are runaways or are taken by parents in custody battles.

The "really worrying disappearances," she said, account for only two to five percent of cases, or about 5,000 to 12,000 incidents per year.

Critics complain that there is no central European database of missing children or Europe-wide authority to manage cases.

Experts say every case of a missing child being found - like the discovery of kidnapped Austrian girl Natascha Kampusch in 2006 and the rescue of three abducted girls in Cleveland earlier this year - raises the hopes of distraught parents whose own children have gone missing.

The parents of British girl Madeleine McCann, who vanished in Portugal in May 2007 days before her fourth birthday, were among those who said the discovery of the girl in Greece had given them more hope of finding their daughter alive.

"It can give hope to the families and justifies that they keep looking for children and fighting," said Mr Alain Boulay, who founded France's APEV association for parents of missing children in 1991, after the kidnapping and murder of his daughter Delphine.