ATHENS, Greece (AP) — A Greek appeal for help in identifying an unknown girl who had been living with a Roma couple has triggered a global outpouring of sympathy and tips — over 8,000 calls so far — but no concrete breakthroughs, authorities said Monday.
Greek police on the case are investigating everything from a potential link with child trafficking rings to a welfare scam or even simple charity as they seek the child's biological parents.
The "Smile of the Child" charity, which is caring for the approximately 4-year-old girl, said it has received thousands of emails in addition to the calls. Respondents include people from the U.S., Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, Australia and South Africa.
"The case has touched a chord with lots of people from many countries," Panayiotis Pardalis, a charity spokesman, told The Associated Press on Monday. "We've received photos of missing children and potentially connected cases which we are forwarding to the police, but there are also — and that's the majority — people conveying their support and concern."
Greek police have also sought assistance from Interpol, the international police agency, which has 38 girls younger than 6 on its missing persons database. None of them, however, fit the girl's description and the agency only receives cases when member governments seek its help.
The Greek appeal follows the discovery last week of the girl in a Gypsy settlement near Farsala in central Greece during a police raid looking for drugs, firearms and fugitives. The blond, blue-eyed child was strikingly unlike the couple she lived with, which triggered the curiosity of prosecutor Christina Fasoula, who had accompanied the police.
A DNA test proved that "Maria," as the child was called, was not related to the Gypsy couple she was living with. Police say the couple initially claimed her as their own.
A 39-year-old man and a 40-year-old woman appeared Monday before an investigating judge in Larissa, near Farsala, to face criminal charges of child abduction, which carries a maximum ten-year prison sentence.
Both denied the charges last week, claiming instead to have adopted the child while she was just days old. A defense lawyer said they were motivated by charity, after being approached by an intermediary for a destitute foreign mother who reportedly could not afford to raise the child.
The suspects have also been charged with illegally obtaining official documents such as birth records.
Police allege the woman claimed to have given birth to six children in less than 10 months, while 10 of the 14 children the couple had registered as their own are unaccounted for.
It is unclear whether these all exist, or are fake declarations of parenthood to milk the Greek welfare system. Police say the two suspects received about 2,500 euros ($3,420) a month in subsidies from three different cities where they had registered the children.
The man also faces separate charges, together with other people from the settlement, for allegedly possessing an illegal firearm and drug-related offences.
Roma, a poor people in a country devastated by an economic crisis, try to make a living on the outskirts of Farsala by selling fruits, carpets, blankets, baskets and shoes. They are already stereotyped by some in Greece and elsewhere in Europe as social outcasts, thieves and beggars — and now fear they will be stigmatized as child traffickers as well.
The case "doesn't reflect on all of us," Babis Dimitriou, president of the local Roma community, told the AP on Sunday.
Dimitriou said the female suspect claimed the child's biological mother was a Bulgarian woman.
"I have seen that woman in our settlement, but she disappeared a few days ago," he said.
Greece's Roma community has for centuries been exposed to poverty and discrimination. According to the London-based Minority Rights Group, some 80 percent of Greece's 300,000 Roma are illiterate.
Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed.