[Bulgaria] Bulgaria's Roma Population: EU Citizens, but Still Not Equal to their Compatriots

15 Feb 2020

The issue of Roma integration in Bulgaria is generally a topic confined to the territory of the country itself. However, openDemocracy shared an insightful article on the issues surrounding the Bulgarian Roma community, EU citizenship, but no shoes: the Roma of Bulgaria. Inspired by the horrid conditions of a ghetto in the outskirts of the city of Burgas, the author, Yuliya Shyrokonis, summarises the origins of the Romani population in Europe and the segregation and marginalization they face in Bulgaria.

The article notes that the estimated population of Roma in Bulgaria varies between 4.9% and 20.9%. The Roma in Bulgaria mostly live in self-built homes within segregated neighbourhoods, usually with limited access to water and electricity. Naturally, these conditions contribute to health issues and further social isolation, however, these problems are also reflected in the healthcare and education systems of the country. Shyrokonis mentions an investigation of Bulgarian maternity wards carried out by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, in which it was discovered that more than 96% of hospital staff admit to ethnically separating patients. Additionally, research by the European Roma Rights Centre has revealed that many Roma children are enrolled in schools for intellectually and developmentally disabled (IDD) students without evidence of such disabilities. Furthermore, a 2001 report by the Open Society Institute has shown that the majority of students in 130 Bulgarian IDD schools were of Roma origin. Even when Roma children are not assigned to IDD schools, they are placed in academically inferior classes in neglected neighbourhood schools where classrooms are overcrowded, lack basic facilities, and are usually led by unlicensed teachers. According to the report, statistics show that around 70% of Roma children are students in such schools.

According to openDemocracy's article, anti-Roma attitudes are expressed in both public and political spheres. In 2017, Bulgarian Member of the European Parliament and vice-chairman of the nationalist IMRO party, Angel Dzhambazki, left a comment on Facebook under a photo of a group of Roma men saying, 'Euthanasia'. Furthermore, the country's Prime Minister, Boyko Borissov, has infamously labelled the Roma community as 'bad human material'. The Roma are underrepresented in Bulgarian politics and such statements face little opposition aside from some critical reports by progressive media platforms. Instead, these anti-Roma attitudes have resulted in riots, like in the town of Gabrovo where, after three Roma men had attacked a Bulgarian shopkeeper, widespread negative reactions on social media culminated in several hundred people taking to the streets and destroying three homes belonging to Roma individuals uninvolved with the attack. Based on all of this, Shyrokonis bitterly points out that the US State Department’s 2016 Human Rights Report for Bulgaria had accurately stated that 'the marginalization of and societal intolerance towards the Romani minority' is 'the country’s most pressing human rights problem'.

Nevertheless, Yuliya Shyrokonis' overview doesn't overlook the work of NGOs in the country which tackle this difficult situation, or the attitudes of progressive Bulgarian citizens. The NGOs mentioned in the text include The Romani Early Years Network, who 'advocate for Roma professionalism, access to early childhood education, and inclusion in the workforce', and the Areté Youth Foundation, who 'support Roma youth and communities with mentorship, camps, and professional development'. The article also mentions the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, which 'gathers statistics on anti-Roma discrimination and other human rights issues, advocates for public discussion thereof, and promotes legislative reform'. Change is further supported in the private social sphere where progressive Bulgarians aim at turning the tide. However, Shyrokonis notes that in order for real change to happen for the better, Bulgaria's leaders need to 'acknowledge the Roma’s humanity and address their needs as equal members of Bulgarian society'.

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