LONDON (NBC) - For generations, children growing up in Europe have been warned not to wander away from their parents in case a "Gypsy" would steal them.
The stereotype of the child-snatching Gypsy -- a term for Roma people that is now considered derogatory -- has resurfaced with the case of Maria, the mystery blonde, blue-eyed girl found living in Greece with a couple who were not her biological parents.
Her discovery, during a police raid on a Roma camp last week, has fueled long-held suspicion of the minority group.
"My mother told me I should never go with the Gypsies in the wood," said Gary Craig, professor of social justice at Britain’s Durham University, echoing the lines of a common U.K. nursery rhyme. "That’s a song you will still hear sung. What sort of image does it portray? [That] they are dangerous."
More than 10 million Roma live in Europe, many of them in impoverished conditions on the outskirts of large cities.
They have been labeled as kidnappers, thieves, swindlers and beggars for centuries.
Maria's case has shone a light on recent real examples of members of the Roma community involved in kidnapping and subjecting children to forced labor, involving them in begging schemes or illegal adoptions.
In 2010, police busted a Romanian gang that had kidnapped 181 children from poor families and brought them to Britain to commit petty thefts or beg for money – with some deliberately mutilated to appear disabled so that they would earn more money.
According to a State Department report on human trafficking, 2012 saw an increase in the number of Roma children from Bulgaria being brought to Greece with promises of employment – only to be subjected to forced petty crimes and begging.
Since their arrival from India into Eastern Europe in the 16th century, Roma have suffered from discrimination, according to Craig.
In the same century, Queen Elizabeth I expelled Roma from Britain, blaming them for the country’s faltering economy. Tens of thousands of Roma were killed in Nazi Germany.
"Romanis have always been regarded with suspicion," Craig added. "Because they’re not settled, they've tended to be regarded as foreigners and others. Because they’re from a minority culture they get treated in the way that many minorities have been for hundreds of years.”
Roma used to travel to find work, but nowadays the majority are no longer truly nomadic.
Underemployed and under-educated, Roma communities tend to live under the radar across Europe, in a climate of mistrust between them and their host country’s majority population.
Their camps have been shut down in Italy and the U.K. In France, Interior Minister Manual Valls has said the ethnic group should be expelled from the country because “only a minority” of them can be integrated into French society.
“This is stigmatizing the whole Roma community in Europe,” said Ivan Ivanov, executive director of the Brussels-based non-profit advocacy group European Roma Information Office.
Thunde Buzetzki, a facilitator at Decade of Roma Inclusion, an international partnership aimed at improving the community’s socio-economic status, said that negative stereotypes remained ingrained.
“No one sees the Roma families who are struggling to survive, discriminated against in the labor market, in health, but this is a large population trying to survive by migrating to other countries," she said.
Buzetski said that while "a certain percentage ... may be petty criminals," the Roma have been "scapegoated."
Figures from the European Union’s executive body, the European Commission, show one in three Roma is unemployed and as many as 90 percent live below the poverty line. Only 15 percent of Roma children obtain minimum schooling requirements.
Viviane Reding, vice president for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship at the European Commission, called improving the situation for Roma people “one of the biggest challenges facing Europe.”
While not denying that kidnappings and selling children do occur in some Roma communities, Ivanov said it’s usually as a last resort and a means for survival.
“There is no evidence that this child [Maria] was kidnapped," he added.
DNA tests show Maria was not born to the Romas. The couple has been accused of abducting Maria. However, they told a court Monday that the girl’s biological mother gave her to them willingly as a baby because she could not take care of her.
Police have launched an international appeal to find Maria's biological parents. Thousands of calls have flooded in since officials released photos of Maria. The Smile of the Child charity is currently caring for her in Athens.
By Henry Austin and Becky Bratu, NBC News