By Karolina Wale and Aashish Paulraj
Discussion of Roma people can be a sensitive subject in many European countries, including Bulgaria. Roma (or Romani) is an overarching term describing various groups of gypsies, mainly living on the shores of the Danube in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia (though many have moved further west). Despite being Europe’s largest ethnic minority with a population of more than 10 million, they are vastly under-represented in many fields from politics to the labour market. In fact, problems of poverty, discrimination and racism have abounded since the Roma people migrated into Europe in the 12th century from regions in the north-west region of India.
The Roma in Bulgaria are not a unified community. They have many sub-divisions and form different small settlements scattered across the country, each with their own culture and traditions. However they are united in the everyday discrimination they face within their country at a personal and institutional level. The ECRI European Office stated in 2003 that the Roma people encountered “serious difficulties in many spheres of life”. Yet, this declaration to curtail discrimination has had little effect on the lives of the Roma.
Given the duration of this problem, it is hard to make the distinction between causes and symptoms of the discrimination. There has not been much political initiative to resolve the discrimination that the Roma people suffer. As recently as in 2015, in Garmen and Orlandovci, suburbs of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, Roma homes were being demolished and their inhabitants relocated without any prior notice. The government ignored this occurrence at the time, only suspending the demolition when it was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights. This decision was hugely unpopular in Bulgaria. Swathes of people led protests in the capital and national parties put pressure on the government; the Regional Development Minister Lilyana Pavlova demanded a schedule detailing by when the houses would be demolished. This is the most infamous act of political discrimination against the Roma people in Bulgaria. Though discrimination tends to be more explicit in other countries, the most recent example being the winning party in Hungary, Fidesz, openly racially abusing the Romani in their election campaign.
Due to this political intolerance, many Roma people distrust officials and so refuse to register on government censuses or misstate their ethnicity so as to avoid prejudice against them. This leads to an underestimate of the Roma population and a lack of role models within the community. Successful Roma in particular tend to disregard their roots; a rare exception is the TV anchorwoman Violeta Draganova who then faced similar discrimination to her less famous counterparts. Thus, not only is the Roma population underestimated (officially making up 5% of the population, but in reality closer to 7-10%) but the successful Roma population even more so.
This particularly affects children who already struggle due to segregation within schools and have very high school dropout rates. Over a quarter of Roma pupils taught in Bulgarian and Romanian schools are taught in separate classrooms, This is due to three main factors: the poor quality of education, traditional customs and family poverty requiring children to work. Thus Roma girls rarely study beyond primary school and boys drop out when they are 15 years old, as soon as they can get a driving license. In this way, when educated rural Bulgarians move to more urban areas and leave behind increasingly more Roma towns and villages, it exacerbates the inequality and the different access to opportunities. It also causes schools in Roma neighbourhoods (where 30-60% of them live) to become increasingly dismal. The lack of proper role models often results in misaligned ambitions. A charity which works with Lozenets’ youth reported that seven in ten Roma boys said they want to become pimps when they grow up since “no other occupation comes with a big house, posh car and the attention of attractive women”.
Having said this, it is worth mentioning it is Bulgarian state policy to ensure all citizens, Roma and Bulgarian alike, go to school until the 7th grade. They also take preventative measures to prevent dropouts and segregation although these are not always successful on a local level. For example, the state provides people with certain means-tested benefits (e.g. families with small children receive grants and bursaries). Due to the patterns of poverty, much of this aid goes to Roma families. This disincentivises Romani families from pulling children out of school. Unfortunately some Bulgarian citizens might feel disillusioned about this support, which could contribute to the negative stereotype and cycle of “othering”.
Thus relatively few Roma enter the traditional labour market, with many instead working in agriculture or being unemployed due to the discrimination. Having said this, one in five labour-market entrants in Bulgaria is a Roma yet is faced with lower wages for the same job. One 11 country analysis by the UN Development Program found that in 2011 Roma men with only primary education earned 11% less than non-Roma men; for those with secondary education the gap was 24-39%. These prospects are just part of the reasons that drive Roma who succeed through education to hide their ethnicity and cut ties with the places where they grew up.
It is clear that Roma have been discriminated against greatly since their arrival to Bulgaria (and indeed most of Europe). The EU has attempted to take measures against this behaviour and to provide more opportunities for Roma people in their respective countries since 2005. Thus started the “Decade of Roma Inclusion” which lasted till mid 2015: an initiative of 12 European countries, which aims to improve the socio-economic status and social inclusion of the Romani minority across the region. This was the first multinational project that actively enhanced the lives of the Roma but the effects of this were varied. For example, more internships were given out to people from Roma backgrounds but the internships were mainly in trans-national corporations as opposed to Bulgarian businesses since the local businesses still refused to take in Romani interns. Despite the funding from the EU, racism against Roma people has persisted. Lastly, while Bulgaria has a better political climate for Roma relative to most of the countries surrounding it, it still appears to treat Romani as 2nd class citizens.
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