Bulgaria must turn policy commitments into concrete action for Roma – UN expert on minority rights

Bulgaria must turn policy commitments into concrete action for Roma – UN expert on minority rights

SOFIA – The UN Independent Expert on minority issues, Gay McDougall, on Monday called on the Government of Bulgaria to turn its policies on Roma integration into concrete action by dedicating the financial resources necessary to improve the living conditions of the Roma, who constitute more than 10 percent of the country’s population.

“Concrete actions on the ground and adequate financial commitment are essential,” McDougall emphasized at the end of her week-long mission to Bulgaria. “Current Government initiatives and financial commitments are having little more than superficial impact and are failing to address the entrenched discrimination, exclusion, and poverty faced by many Roma. Many policies seem to remain largely only rhetorical undertakings aimed at external audiences – official commitments that are not fulfilled in practice.”

The Independent Expert was in Bulgaria from 4 to 11 July to assess the situation of minorities, particularly the Roma, Turkish and other Muslim minorities, and to consult on Bulgaria’s legislation, policy and practice relevant to minority rights, non-discrimination and equality. She visited a number of Roma communities including Fakulteta in Sofia, and Stolipinovo in Plovdiv, and expressed alarm at the general conditions that she witnessed in those neighborhoods.

McDougall said that in such key areas as housing, employment, education and health care, all the evidence demonstrates that Roma remain in desperate circumstances at the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder. She noted that they experience discrimination in all walks of life that leaves them totally marginalized and in persistent poverty. Unemployment rates in Roma communities soar to over 80 percent of the entire Roma population (40 percent of those of working age) and life expectancy rates are estimated to be over 10 years less than the average. Of the substantial number of Roma in the capital city of Sofia, for example, at least 70 percent live in dwellings considered to be outside the Municipal Master Plan, considered ineligible for infrastructure services. They have no running water, sewage, paved streets, waste collection or street lights.

McDougall also emphasized that the government’s obligation to guarantee equal access to quality education to Roma children remains overwhelmingly unfulfilled.

“While Bulgaria was among the first European countries to acknowledge the need for desegregation of Roma children in education, the vast majority of Roma children are in sub-standard de facto segregated schools in Roma neighborhoods,” she said.

In meetings with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Interior and the National Council of Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues, the Government consistently highlighted its commitment to desegregation and inclusion of Roma with respect to employment, housing and health care and shared numerous policy documents outlining those commitments. However, the discussions with the responsible agencies, such as the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, revealed a shallow commitment with little evidence-based programming, benchmarking, monitoring or evaluation, the Independent Expert said.

Additionally, the level of government budgetary commitment appears woefully inadequate to-date. “The small, inconsistent pilot project-based approach that has been undertaken to date will never reach the transformative tipping point necessary to confront the vast socio-economic challenges faced by the Roma,” McDougall said.

The level of racial prejudice against Roma in Bulgaria was evident in numerous interactions that the Independent Expert had, including with Government officials. Journalists and NGOs also noted the overwhelmingly negative media coverage and discriminatory stereotyping of the Roma by the media. The Independent Expert was deeply concerned by comments, for example, from some high-level officials that strongly indicated their view of Roma communities as predominately a criminal element in Bulgarian society. Roma remain vastly under-represented in political institutions and decision-making bodies at national and local levels. There is currently only one Roma MP and a limited number of mayors and local government councillors.

The UN Expert also heard testimony about attacks on mosques and religious buildings, attempts to manipulate public sentiment against minority religious and ethnic groups for political gain, an inhospitable climate for the free expression of minority ethnic identities, and poor enforcement of anti-discrimination and hate speech legislation.

McDougall commended the work of the Commission for Protection Against Discrimination and the Ombudsman, adding that the resources available to these bodies should be increased.

The Independent Expert sincerely thanked the Government of Bulgaria for its invitation to conduct an official visit to the country, and for its excellent cooperation.

(*) Check the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/minorities.htm

The mandate of the Independent Expert on minority issues is one of the thematic Special Procedures human rights mandates reporting to the UN Human Rights Council. Ms. Gay McDougall (United States) was appointed as the first holder of the post of UN Independent Expert on minority issues in July 2005.

Learn more about the mandate and work of the Independent Expert: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/minorities/expert/index.htm

For press inquiries and additional information on the Independent Expert’s mission, please contact Mr. Graham Fox, OHCHR Human Rights Officer (Tel: +41 22 9179640 / mobile phone: 00 41 079 444 3940 / email: gfox@ohchr.org) or write to minorityissues@ohchr.org

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