Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The 2011 census recorded that Roma amounted to around 4.9 per cent among those of the 92 per cent of the population who responded to the question about their ethnicity. However, non-governmental sources have previously estimated that there were some 700,000 Roma in Bulgaria, a proportion closer to 10 per cent of the national population. According to the authorities, the large discrepancy between this figure and the census results is due to many Roma identifying themselves as Bulgarians, Turks and to a lesser extent as Romanians. The Roma community is deeply segmented and divided by religion, clan affiliation, language and traditional occupation. About half the Roma are Muslim; others are Christian Orthodox, and some are Protestant.
Roma continue to be subjected to high levels of discrimination in Bulgaria. Since 2010, the European Commission has overseen the Bulgarian national strategy for Roma integration and in 2014 it published the results of its latest assessment in the areas of education, employment, health, housing, anti-discrimination, and funding. Although some progress was recorded in relation to mainstream policy reforms, the assessment found that significant action was required in every area of implementation.
Roma are first mentioned in Bulgaria in the fourteenth century but may have arrived in the country much earlier. Under Ottoman rule, many Roma embraced Islam.
The Roma were an early target of communist assimilation policy, which included name-changing and forcible settlement in fixed communities. After 1989, Roma newspapers resumed publication and cultural activities recommenced. Several Roma political organizations were established, most notably the Roma Democratic Union and the United Roma Organization. The Roma Democratic Union’s attempt to register as a political party in 1990 failed in light of the constitutional ban on ethnic or religious parties. Since then, de facto Roma parties have participated in Bulgarian politics, albeit without the Roma label.
Despite a generally improved situation for minorities in Bulgaria following the demise of the communist regime in 1989, Roma continued to suffer widespread exclusion. Authorities routinely discouraged Roma from exercising their rightful claims to land as the state has dissolved agricultural collectives. A large proportion of the population remained mired in poverty. Roma children were overwhelmingly sent to schools in areas of concentrated Roma settlement, amounting in practice to their segregation from other Bulgarian pupils.
Moreover, predominantly Roma schools were usually inferior to non-Roma schools, and lacked adequate resources. Roma children, most of whom come from difficult backgrounds, faced the added weight of prejudice at school, regarded by much of the educational system as less capable than children of other ethnicities. Illiteracy rates for Roma were on the rise.
After years of delay, in 1999 the government came to an agreement with Roma representatives on a Framework Programme for Equal Integration of Roma, and some changes followed. In 2002 the government introduced measures aimed at ending the practice of sending Roma children to schools for the mentally impaired on the basis of ethnicity. Roma NGOs were able to take advantage of an anti-discrimination law passed in 2003 that allowed civil society organizations to file public-interest lawsuits. However, despite marginal improvements, implementation of government initiatives on Roma exclusion lagged. In 2003 and 2004 the government adopted more specific action plans and programmes, but financial resources for the implementation of these remained scarce.
Ahead of Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union in January 2007 the government adopted a number of measures aimed at improving Roma rights in areas such as language education, housing, health and employment. The most recent initiative adopted to improve the situation of the Roma is the 2012-2020 National Roma Integration Strategy of the Republic of Bulgaria. This was followed by work with regions and municipalities to create strategies specific to each region of Bulgaria and action plans at the level of each municipality. However, despite some improvements in educational outcomes, the marginalization of the community remains deeply entrenched. Very few Roma occupy senior positions in the legislative or executive spheres: indeed, the number of Roma elected at local level appears to have declined markedly in recent years, from 81 local councillors elected in 1999 from parties representing Roma interests to only 17 in the 2011 local elections.
Bulgaria’s Roma are among the country’s most excluded urban populations. Poverty, high levels of unemployment and limited education combine with social stigmatization, leaving them very isolated from mainstream society and unable to access many of the benefits of cities. Urban segregation has also increased over the last two decades, further reducing their visibility: ethnic Bulgarians who used to live in predominantly Roma neighbourhoods sold their property there and moved to other parts of the cities, while Roma who used to live in predominantly Bulgarian neighbourhoods sold their apartments and moved to Roma ghettoes. The overall health status of Roma is significantly lower than that of other citizens and there remain significant and persisting differences in the level of economic activity of Roma compared with ethnic Bulgarians.
Many Roma in Bulgarian cities are concentrated in areas known as mahali. Overcrowding in these neighbourhoods has led to spontaneous and unauthorized building of new houses or enlarging of the existing ones, often referred to as ‘illegal house building’ in public discussions. As a result, these settlements are often not included in official urban planning: as some of the houses are built without authorization, the municipal authorities have no formal obligation to provide paved roads, public lighting or street cleaning. Consequently, large urban ghettoes such as Fakulteta in Sofia or Maksuda in Varna more closely resemble villages than city neighbourhoods.
A painful reminder of the precarious situation of many Roma urban households came in June 2014 when 13 people, most of them Roma, died as a result of flooding in Asparuhovo, a neighbourhood in Varna: since many of their homes were illegally built, they were not stable enough to survive torrential waters. Another contributing factor to the devastation of the area, however, was the illegal felling of trees on the hill overlooking the neighbourhood. While some of this clearance was undertaken by Roma, who transported the timber with their horse-drawn carriages and sold it to timber companies, it would be an oversimplification to apportion blame to them alone. For instance, some reports suggested that certain local police had turned a blind eye to these activities and even took bribes to allow the process.
Furthermore, the involvement of Roma in this and other illegal activities has been driven to their exclusion from the mainstream economy – a result both of their low educational levels and widespread popular stereotypes about the community. Even employers who do not share negative attitudes towards Roma may avoid hiring them in public contexts such as restaurants, cafes and hotels since they know that customers are likely to stop using their services. The consequence is that the urban Roma are pushed into unofficial and underground economies, such as informal work and even criminal enterprises.
In terms of education, the Roma in Bulgarian cities study in two types of schools: so-called ‘gypsy’ schools in ghettoes or integrated schools in predominantly Bulgarian neighbourhoods. The former are often considered to be poorly staffed and physically neglected, although facilities in some Roma neighbourhoods have been improved in recent years. But while many Roma students prefer to study in mainstream ‘Bulgarian’ schools, the process of educational desegregation in cities has not been easy. Many principals and teachers prefer not to enrol Roma students in mainstream schools due to fears of teaching standards deteriorating as some Roma children do not speak Bulgarian fluently.
The proportion of Roma pupils who do not complete secondary school or who never complete any level of education also remains significantly higher than the overall figure for the Bulgarian population. This is a particular challenge for Roma girls as early marriage, especially among the poorest groups, remains a significant problem with lasting effects not only on those forced into them but also their children.
Ill-treatment and excessive use of force by law enforcement officials is a particular problem in Bulgaria and research conducted by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee found that Roma are heavily over-represented among the victims of police ill-treatment.
The root causes determining the plight of the Roma has been hotly debated. Bulgarians tend to blame what they see as aspects of Roma culture that reportedly have contributed to their own marginalization, such as educational neglect and a tendency to keep themselves separate. Others point out the continued and deep-rooted discrimination Roma experience. In reality, all these factors are at work, amplifying each other and leading to poverty, unemployment and exclusion. Authorities seeking to ‘solve’ the current situation of the country’s Roma should therefore focus on promoting fairer and more equitable urban policies to integrate their most marginalised residents into the mainstream.
Updated July 2018
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