EurActiv - Letters to the Editor

Sir,

Regarding ‘Šefcovic eases through hearing, fends off accusations‘:

Political Situation and Overall Social and Economic Background

2009’s most important political event in Bulgaria was the general election of July 5. 07. 2009 which the GERB political party won in a landslide. Ever since the majority government party got the support of the smaller right-wing parties of DSB and ODS as well as that of the Ataka nationalist party, they have demonstrated a hardline approach of ignoring the voice of the social partners and dismissing Bulgaria’s minorities.

Everything that was accomplished by past administrations in terms of affirmative action for the Roma community in line with the ‘Decade of Roma Inclusion European Initiative’ was dismissed and taken out of the current government’s list of priorities. The changes in the structure and organisation of state administration introduced by the government marginalised some positions that were key for Roma integration by eliminating their political and financial resources. Of all the trends that were established during the five months since the GERB administration took office, the ones that have worried the Roma Community the most can be summarised as follows:

  • The government refuses to communicate with Roma organisations and Community leaders that have proven themselves on local and national level, and disregards international documents that have been ratified by the Republic of Bulgaria;
  • Currently, the position of chairman of the National Council for Cooperation on Matters of Ethnic and Demographic Importance (NCCMEDI) is held by the Minister of the Interior, Mr. Tsvetan Tsvetanov. The Roma Community in Bulgaria interprets this as a clear sign that this administration sees law enforcement organisations as its main channel of communication with Roma, i.e. the administration considers its Ministry of Interior as the institution responsible for finding a solution for the problems that the Roma Community is facing. We see this as a major setback as it restores the status-quo from the 1990s;
  • The GERB administration launched several campaigns to tear down buildings in gypsy neighborhoods in Varna, Burgas and Sofia which were widely reported in the media. These were supposed to send the clear message that gypsies would be dealt with unceremoniously and with an “iron fist” so that “the law would triumph”. This was done to please GERB’s Parliament allies, the nationalists from Ataka, by fulfilling their populist pre-election agenda;
  • Over the course of the past year or so hate rhetoric was greatly intensified across the printed and electronic media as hate-mongers were tacitly encouraged by the lack of social debate to curb resentment towards the Roma Community.

We feel that the situation of the Roma Community in Bulgaria is worrisome and uncertain in the presence of clearly nationalistic and anti-gypsy attitudes in society. All of the affirmative action measures undertaken in recent years to improve the situation of the Roma Community are now being questioned and marginalised. The added burden of the economic crisis made the situation for the Roma Community even worse rendering its people total social outsiders, much like in the early post-communist years.

Unfortunately, the policy implemented in recent years by the Sofia Open Society Institute allowed figureheads to substitute the real leadership of the Roma Community to suit certain private interests. The projects that were developed were chasing funding instead of looking to find solutions to real problems. Real community leaders and organisations were ousted as they refused to accept this policy. The results were soon to follow, problems that were supposedly solved cropped up “most unexpectedly”.

A case in point: with the recommendation of the Sofia Open Society Institute at the end of the office of the former administration Mr. Deyan Kolev, chairman of Amalipe non-government organisation, was named chairman of the National Council for Cooperation on Matters of Ethnic and Demographic Importance.

He pushed through the initiative for studying Roma heritage and culture in the schools but excluded from his priorities the constitutionally-guaranteed right of Roma people to study their own native language. This was something Roma organisations had been fighting for long time. Another example: neglecting human-rights activities such as implementing effective legal actions and mechanisms to monitor the work of law enforcement agencies resulted in violations of the human rights of Roma people on a scale that is the worst in the EU.

Health and Security

Over the course of the past several years Bulgaria’s healthcare system has been in constant overhaul mode. Currently, healthcare is unavailable to a large portion of the population that does not have health insurance.

The Roma people are the hardest hit by this problem. Roma people work mainly in communal service companies on part-time or temporary labour contracts, and sometimes even without any contracts. In construction, which is one of the other few industries open to Roma workers, there are even more drastic violations of workers’ rights. The lack of health insurance and the higher incidence rates for certain diseases make Roma people undesirable patients for some of the General Practitioners.

Furthermore, due to the poor living conditions (which are now becoming even worse) and the restricted access to health services, the Roma Community falls victim to outbreaks of diseases such as hepatitis and tuberculosis which are not typical among other social groups. The ongoing health reform severely restricted prophylactic and prevention measures for many diseases by taking them out of the health package covered by the state.

To make matters worse, there are medical facilities to which Roma people have virtually no access. The fees for emergency and life-saving interventions are priced well above the average income for the country (in many instances these are unreasonably high or arbitrarily set by the hospitals) and consequently 90 % of the Roma people do not use such services.

All of these factors, such as high susceptibility to diseases, lack of emergency and hospital treatment, the fact that the health reform practically put an end to free healthcare, the reluctance of doctors to treat Roma patients (who in medical circles have for a long time been labelled as a high-risk group), lead to a high mortality rate among the Roma Community. A disturbing trend of the last several years is the increasing mortality rates in children up to three years of age.

In terms of security, the recent couple of months saw the development of following trends:

  • The new administration clearly demonstrated that its priority is going to be to increase the role of the police institution as a factor in society. The need to streamline the organisation of the Ministry of the Interior by optimising personnel, restructuring certain directorates, and providing additional training to police officers was cast aside in favour of increasing salaries (which took place without informing the general public), bringing back lethal ammunition, and increasing the prerogatives of law enforcement agencies. At the moment the police force outnumbers the army twice!
  • Furthermore, representatives of the police started referring to the Roma Community as the main crime-generating demographic, which we thought was something that remained in the 90s. Some members of the police do not hide their affiliations to nationalist organisations such as Ataka and the Bulgarian National Union. The term ‘gypsy crime’ was allowed to gain currency in Bulgaria and neither the Ministry of the Interior, nor the media, nor any of the public institutions for that matter, are doing anything to stop that.
  • A large part of the Roma Community feels insecure and threatened due to the increasing institutional racism and the openly implemented policy of zero tolerance for gypsies who are now being relegated to their old stereotype of being a group of “illiterate, lazy, criminally-inclined and sick people”.

Today we can claim with no exaggeration that the disparity between the Roma Community and the rest of society has been brought back to the level of the mid-nineties. What scares Roma people the most is the ‘new’ accusation that over the past 20 years the Roma Community has demonstrated its “reluctance to integrate in society”. This additional accusation is constantly being thrown about by representatives of various social groups and even institutions such as the administration, the police, by educators, doctors, right-wing politicians, and, unfortunately, by some non-governmental organisations (particularly local ones “voicing the civic attitudes of local communities”).

Education

Education was the only sphere where in the past 20 years the interests of the community and the interests of reforming educational system coincided. For the Roma people the most important change that took place was that families understood how important it was for their children to get better education. This was reinforced by initiatives of non-governmental organisations working both at the local level, with the communities, and at the institutional level, in order to achieve sustainability in integration through education and to make the state and the municipal administrations commit for the long term.

Despite the presence of active dialogue and the achievements, we have to admit that some problems appeared over the last several years due to some political changes. Certain experts in the field of education, who had been working to help the Roma Community make the administration commit to this by issuing policies and providing funding for their implementation, started to back down from this position in favour of other interests. Currently, because of lack of action and the absence of a proper environment, the sustainable inclusion of Roma people in the educational system is threatened by the following factors:

  • There is no legal framework in place to support the official policy of desegregation of education and education as a means of integration;
  • There is no financial and expert resource to implement the policy’s support activities;
  • The initiative to reform the educational system in Bulgaria employs a system where school budgets depend on the number of students enrolled there. This reinforces the status-quo making Roma children stay at the ghetto (gypsy) schools;
  • Most of the so-called foster schools of the desegregation system illustrated another problem. Children from Bulgarian ethnic origin started leaving those schools, making them a subject to secondary segregation. Little by little, these schools are becoming gypsy schools which is helped by their close proximity to Roma neighbourhoods and places with a great concentration of Roma people, such as outdoor bazaars, stations of the transportation system and so on.
  • Arguably the most serious problem as regards to educational policies for the Roma Community lies in the lack of coordination between the efforts of the state and municipal authorities. Most of the schools with large numbers of Roma students are municipal. As the budgets of all municipal schools are determined by local authorities, there is no mechanism in place to ensure the central government helps to achieve priorities such as school desegregation.

In Bulgaria there are entire municipalities where Roma people are the majority but there it is not possible to implement programs for multi-ethnical educational standards. There regions are typically underdeveloped and have poor communications and infrastructure. Desegregation in such regions requires larger human and financial resources and a long-term policy by the central government.

Bulgaria is no exception to certain pan-European trends in elitising education, which here in Bulgaria will make the educational system reflect the social and economic status of the population, where wealthier families will start sending their children to private schools.

The Turkish and Jewish communities in Bulgaria are already setting up and trying to get certification for such elitist ethnic schools. The ethnic elites created in these schools can lead to radicalisation of the youth of these communities. Similar processes are taking place in the Roma Community as well. Left as it is, the current educational system will create the following strata amongst Roma children: those who attend elitist private schools for Roma, those who attend ghetto-type schools in the Roma neighbourhoods, Roma children who do not have access to education, and children who only sporadically attend municipal schools. The number of the last group depends predominantly on initiatives by foreign-funded non-government organisations and specialised international foundations.

Housing Policy

The housing problems of the Roma people fall into two distinctive categories depending on whether they live in small rural communities or on the large cities. On the one hand, Roma living in small rural communities tend to migrate to big cities in Bulgaria or abroad. On the other, the Roma communities in the large cities grow rapidly, which creates problems in terms of employment, education, health care, and most of all, security.

Both groups, however, lose property. The homes they have lived in for years are not secure and typically insurers want to stay away from such properties. The new administration that took office recently not only did send a message that it was ready to tear down Roma neighbourhoods, but actually did it. Hundreds of Roma families lost their homes and property and now live in conditions unbecoming of a country in the European Union.

In terms of its commitment to solving the housing problems of the Roma Community, we can say that the current administration totally neglected its responsibility and is yet to show any semblance of an attempt to do something positive for the Roma people of Bulgaria.

The implications of this policy, or lack thereof, are compounded by the fact that if people do not have homes, they are by default deprived of education, health care and security. The legal framework regarding property is changing dynamically and with no regard to the specific problems of the Roma Community. There are no alternatives and no transparency whatsoever in the mass relocations. There are no publically announced plans for the legitimate and long-term resolution of this problem. This is the sphere of life where the most flagrant violations of human rights have been perpetrated recently.

Of all the changes in the legislation the one with the heaviest impact on the Roma Community was the cancellation of the regulation allowing them to gain the title of ‘squatter’. Many Roma neighbourhoods were built on municipal land after the Mandatory Settlement Act more than 50 years ago, but now their Roma residents cannot gain title over their properties. This amendment hit 100% of the Roma Community by taking their security away and opening the door for malfeasance on the part of organisations and private citizens.

Employment and Entrepreneurship

Based on the above, one cannot help but conclude that the business opportunities available to the Roma people are restricted, to say the least. None of the administrations of the past 20 years did anything meaningful to curb unemployment amongst the Roma Community. The credit crunch made it impossible for Roma people to get any business loans as they do not have real estate to offer as collateral. For most of the Roma people it is impossible even to get small consumer loans as most of them do not have indefinite labour contracts or work only on temporary employment programmes. Loan-sharking is becoming more and more common and that is a crime-generating factor in the Roma neighbourhoods, especially in large cities.

The legislation regulating distribution and access to social services underwent certain amendments but these are totally inadequate with regard to the needs of the Roma Community. Social institutions are starting to send a message out that the Roma people using those services are too many and that is “at the expense of other social groups”.

All state programmes to relieve unemployment amongst the Roma people have become more or less “a private business” for certain political and economic lobbies, thereby rendering those initiatives marginal and inefficient.

This overview was compiled by:

Kamelia Angelova, Independent Media Expert
Attorney at Law Daniela Mihaylova, Expert on Human Rights and Non-Discrimination
Mihail Georgiev, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Romany Baht Foundation
A number of Roma Community leaders from Sofia and the rest of the country

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Comments

  1. Have you seen these people my dear Authors? It is easy to see things from your own tower.

    Poor old gypsies, they don’t pay electricity, they live on social benefits, they steal, they DO NOT want to educate their selves, although the primary school is free and the books are provided by the country. Haven’t you talked with such people, before posting this and seen why they are in such a situation? Because THEY want it that way, it’s in their blood.

    Really the poor old gypsies, I want to be a gypsy in Bulgaria and pay nothing like them! Good job for the propaganda, dear authors!

  2. I’ve been in their homes, I’ve seen their situation and no, I don’t want to live like they do. Its deplorable especially in Europe to see their plight. Education has to come to them and help them. They are very social and have their own culture that we don’t always understand. Its time we reach out to our brothers and sisters and help them.

  3. How big is your house, Bert Phagan? Don’t you want to accomodate several Gypsy families? After you integrate them and educate them – under your enlightened supervision – you can return them back.

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