Region: Roma minority faces uphill battle
Government's lack of reach stymies integration of poorer communities
Posted: March 6, 2013
A Roma family watches the demolition of their illegally built house in a Roma suburb of Maglizh Sept. 25, 2012. With about 700,000 people, Bulgaria's Roma community makes up 10 percent of the population. The vast majority lives in poverty, and unemployment is rampant. According to the 2011 census, 12 percent of the Roma minority is illiterate, compared with 0.5 percent for the rest of the population.
By Richie Parrish
For the Post
Roma communities in Bulgaria and the surrounding region have found that embracing religion and ethnicity comes with a catch. Under heavy discrimination and outside proselytizing influence, the lives of the Roma people display how a government hand remains a pivotal tool for integration, but many say help is still ephemeral.
Lili Makaveeva is the director of the Integro Association in Bulgaria, an organization based in the northeast of the country that aims to develop and integrate Roma into Bulgarian society. She claims the largest problem facing the Bulgarian Roma population, one of the largest in Central and Eastern Europe, is the lack of government reach and a failing initiative to meet basic needs. Statistical inaccuracies of Roma in Bulgaria make poverty even more difficult to approach, specifically in terms of racial and denominational identity.
Nearly 325,000 people in Bulgaria identify themselves as Roma, accounting for 4.9 percent of the population, according to the 2011 census and the United Nations Refugee Agency. Those numbers have been subject to intense criticism, as nearly twice as many respondents refrained from providing details of their ethnicity as well as many Roma claiming to be Bulgarian or Turkish.
As a result, the region has become a hotbed of hostility among Bulgarians and their Roma neighbors. Most recently in September, a series of nationwide anti-Roma demonstrations erupted after a smaller protest outside one Roma man's lavish residence. He was suspected of running a moonshine operation.
For the majority of Bulgaria's Roma, poverty is the norm. According to the UN's 2011 Country Report of Human Rights Practices, living conditions, unemployment, education and discrimination remain the driving influences behind the Roma population's inability to integrate into Bulgarian society.
According to the country report, only 46.2 percent of the Roma population in Bulgaria completed primary education and only 7.8 percent of Roma completed secondary education; 11.8 percent are illiterate, which is more than 20 times the percentage of ethnic Bulgarians.
"We now have thousands of Roma children that go to school, but they are illiterate," Makaveeva said. "A lot of children are enrolled in school but don't go. No one writes absence letters for these children when they don't go." Educational subsidies depend on the number of children enrolled, leading children not in attendance, specifically Roma, to go unreported, Makaveeva added. Some 23.2 percent of Roma children between the ages of 7 and 15 do not attend school, according to the 2011 census, as opposed to the 5.6 percent of ethnic Bulgarians.
For some in Bulgaria, Roma ethnicity is not the only factor behind harsh discrimination. Of Bulgaria's Roma population, 18.3 percent identify as Muslim, while another 10.1 percent identify as Protestant. For the former, bigotry comes from both sides of the societal spectrum.
"Unfortunately, Roma have been discriminated against in many parts of the world, yet in the case of Bulgaria, their combined identity of being Muslim and Roma makes them vulnerable to double discrimination," Seyfeddin Kara said. Kara worked with the United Kingdom-based Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) from 2006 to 2011. In 2008, he visited Bulgaria with the IHRC to continue an assessment of human rights violations of Roma Muslims.
"The situation of the Muslim Roma is more or less the same as the anti-Islamic attitude of the host societies in these countries," he told The Prague Post. "The situation is exacerbated by other Muslim communities also excluding Roma Muslims, thus they do not get any support from outside."
"I see how Protestant churches mobilize the Roma communities," Makaveeva added. She claims that Protestant churches interact more with Roma communities than Islamic groups, but efforts from Muslim organizations do exist in the ghettos of larger cities like Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second-largest city.
"The communities are extremely poor, and it's easy to go among these poor people and give them food and clothes and attract them to come to mosques," Makaveeva said. "I don't think these are very fundamentalist or radical."
While some say Roma integration remains an all-too difficult task, government and NGO efforts remain focused on resolving the issue. According to the UN Refugee Agency, Bulgaria is a participant in the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-15, an international initiative of several European countries to improve the conditions of the country's Roma population. Those initiatives include developments in the areas of education, health, housing and employment.
Makaveeva, for her part, remains skeptical. "Despite the efforts of all NGOs, we speak so much about Roma integration … and despite all these discussions, integration doesn't improve," she said. "It gets worse and worse to the point where no one believes [it] anymore. Not Roma themselves, not society, not politicians."
Richie Parrish can be reached at email@example.com
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