For centuries across Europe, children were raised on folk tales with a disturbing message: Do not wander into the woods, or you risk being snatched by Gypsies.
Such a warning seems like an anachronism from medieval times. But the stereotype of the child-stealing Gypsy has been reawakened since last week, when a Roma couple in Greece were jailed on accusations that they had abducted a blond, green-eyed child called Maria -- dubbed "the blond angel" in the Greek media. This week, two blond, blue-eyed Roma children were taken from their parents in Ireland following suspicions that they had been abducted, too.
The children in Ireland were quickly returned to their families after DNA testing confirmed that the Roma were their parents. In Greece, police confirmed Friday that Maria was the child of a Roma couple from Bulgaria. An investigation continues into whether Maria was sold, adopted or given to the couple in Greece, as they have claimed.
Whatever the outcome, the Roma say it is they who now live in fear -- of having their children snatched for no reason other than their cultural identity or skin color. The cases, they say, have helped fan a sometimes-violent backlash against the roughly 11 million Roma across Europe. In an era of budget cuts and high unemployment, politicians on both the left and right have singled out the Roma as emblematic of the problems of illegal immigration and questioned whether they can ever be integrated.
"Imagine if the situation were reversed, and the children were brown and the parents were white. Would they have ever been taken away?" said Dezideriu Gergely, director of the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest. "The most dangerous consequence of the hysteria is that now we have to live in fear that our children can be removed from us on the basis of a wrong perception. No one should be profiled on the basis of their ethnicity."
Mr. Gergely, a human rights lawyer who has a Roma father and a white Romanian mother, noted that many Roma, who arrived in Europe from India centuries ago and are also called Gypsies, came from mixed families. He has light skin and blue eyes, which he said punctured the widespread stereotype that Roma have dark hair and dusky complexions.
"It is mystifying that those accused of criminality are seen to represent the Roma community," he said, noting that if people engaged in human trafficking, it was because of severe poverty, not their cultural background. "Applying collective responsibility to the entire Roma community is unacceptable."
Despite such warnings, anti-Roma sentiment appears to be spreading. On Wednesday, Serbian media reported that over the weekend a group of skinheads in Novi Sad, in central Serbia, had tried to abduct a Roma child in front of his house because his skin was fairer than that of his father, Stefan Nikolic.
In Italy, the anti-immigrant Northern League responded to news of Maria's supposed abduction this week by demanding inspections of all Roma communities to check for missing children. Gianluca Buonanno, a Northern League member in the Italian lower house, said he had submitted a petition to the Interior Ministry demanding identification of camp occupants.
"If it happened in Greece, it could very well happen here in Italy. Maybe it's happening already," he said in an interview with Repubblica TV, shown on La Repubblica's website.
Even before the kidnapping cases, rights groups say, violence and intimidation against the Roma were intensifying. This month, a woman threw acid at a 2-year-old Roma boy and his mother in Naples, according to the European Roma Research Center. In Hungary, at least seven Roma were killed between 2008 and 2010, and Roma leaders have counted dozens of firebomb attacks in the past.
In Greece, where the far-right Golden Dawn movement has been fanning anti-immigrant fervor, the head of the Greek Union of Roma, Yiannis Halilopoulos, said the sensational coverage in the Greek media and the racial profiling that followed Maria's removal had "taken us back 100 years."
"For the first time in years, I hear people shouting 'Gypsies, thieves!' when I walk down the street," he said.
He said he had also noticed more aggressive reactions to Roma who beg in the street. "Sometimes they shove them out of the way. I haven't seen that in a long time."
Mr. Halilopoulos said many children in Roma settlements had light skin and blond hair and blue eyes. "What are you going to do? Take them all in because they don't 'match' their parents?" he said.
In the Czech Republic, ultraright parties and their neo-Nazi supporters this year have organized about 30 anti-Roma marches, where some have chanted, "Gypsies to the gas chambers," rights groups said.
In France, where the Roma issue has flared amid a debate over immigration, the far-right National Front has made the Roma a key issue before municipal elections in March. Its leaders have warned that if Romanians and Bulgarians were allowed to travel in the European Union's passport-free Schengen Area, the country could see a flood of Roma immigrants.
Capturing increasing national frustration with the Roma, an April cover story in the popular magazine Paris Match showed eight pages of photographs of young Roma pickpockets brazenly targeting tourists at bank machines, metro stations and museums such as the Louvre.
But Roma advocates counter that, if there is crime among some Roma, it is the byproduct of severe economic deprivation and social exclusion that allowed a minority of unscrupulous ringleaders to exploit poor people eking out an existence on society's fringes.