SWM 2015: Bulgaria - Segregated and excluded – the situation of Roma
Case study by Svetlozar Kirilov
Bulgaria’s Roma are among the country’s most excluded urban population. 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 neighborhoods sold their property there and moved to other parts of the cities, while Roma who used to live in predominantly Bulgarian neighborhoods sold their apartments and moved to Roma ghettoes.
Today, many Roma in Bulgarian cities are concentrated in areas known as mahali. Overcrowding in these neighborhoods 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 neighborhoods.
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 neighborhood in Varna: since many of their home 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 neighborhood. 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 neighborhoods. The former are often considered as poorly staffed and physically neglected, although facilities in some Roma neighborhoods 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 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 to the continued 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 marginal residents into the mainstream.