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Bulgaria Must Stop Its Anti-Roma Attacks

woman walking past election posters
A woman walks past election posters for the ultra-nationalist Ataka party in Sofia, Bulgaria, in October 2014. © Nikolay Doychinov/Getty

Since May, anti-Roma protests in Bulgaria have led to Roma families being attacked and beaten. Riots escalated after tensions rose between Roma and non-Roma in Garmen, in southwest Bulgaria, and Orlandovzi in Sofia. Dozens have been injured.

Following the clashes, hundreds of people were on the streets, demanding that “illegal” Roma houses be demolished and that “Roma theft” be stopped. Although the police were present at the anti-Roma demonstrations, some people were able to get through a police cordon and attack Roma, some of whom were children. Violence spread beyond the initial trouble spots—one attack on a public bus in Sofia on June 21 left a Roma father and his twin sons severely beaten just because of their ethnicity.

According to Intelekt, a coalition of civil society organizations, anti-Roma demonstrations are being politically orchestrated ahead of local elections in October. The media have already reported that members of some political parties were involved in the protests.

As a concession to the protesters, the Bulgarian government installed cameras to watch Roma communities, and started to evict about 300 families from Garmen without offering any alternative housing. Four houses have so far been demolished, leaving four families, including 12 children, homeless. 

Most Bulgarians hold some level of prejudice against the Roma. Promoting anti-Roma sentiment in one of Europe’s poorest countries is an easy way to score political points. Politicians scapegoat a minority in order to distract public attention from the real causes of Bulgaria’s social and economic problems, causing great harm to the Roma community and to society as a whole.

If the situation continues, civil society organizations are afraid that the clashes will further escalate and more Roma will be attacked. If politicians from the ruling party are part of this dangerous game, it would mean that the government is participating in state-sponsored anti-Roma racism in order to gain votes in the upcoming local elections. 

This flies in the face of the norms and values that are enshrined in Bulgarian and European law. On July 10, the European Court of Human Rights issued a letter to the Bulgarian authorities to stop the demolition of houses unless the government has already provided housing for the families that were living there. On July 13 and 14, members of the European Parliament and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe called on the Bulgarian authorities to immediately end the evictions and anti-Roma actions. On July 18, a protest was organized before the parliament in Sofia, with a demand that the demolitions of the Roma houses continue.

Despite international outcry and the letter from the Court, the authorities decided to continue with the demolition of houses. The evicted Roma have nowhere to go. 

The Bulgarian government needs to address urgently the housing problem in Garmen and stop the ongoing evictions and anti-Roma actions. The irregular housing of Roma communities has been an issue since the time of communism. Many Roma in Bulgaria, including in Garmen and Orlandovzi, have lived in those locations for decades, tolerated by the authorities.

Today, the government has responded to the racist requests of protesters rather than upheld its duty to protect its own citizens. This is incompatible with the obligations of Bulgaria following the adoption of EU antidiscrimination legislation, which protects EU citizens against discrimination on the basis of ethnicity. The European Commission is also now reviewing the compliance of member states, including Bulgaria, with EU legislation on racist and xenophobic crimes. 

In 2012, Bulgaria adopted a National Roma Integration Strategy to tackle exclusion of Roma in education, employment, health, and housing. From 2007 to 2013, the government received 37 million euros from the EU for integrating disadvantaged people, including Roma. Among other things, this funding includes investments in housing for Roma. Based on recent events, it is clear that money alone will not solve the problem. 

Politicians must stop using Roma as scapegoats in election campaigns. The government should take steps to de-escalate tensions rather than adding fuel to the fire. The authorities should ensure sufficient police presence to protect the Roma community against physical attacks, systematically prosecute incidents of racist violence, and publicly condemn hate speech in the media. Evictions need to be stopped and EU funds used to find a sustainable housing solution for the Roma in Garmen and elsewhere in Bulgaria.

The good news is that the government has the necessary policy and financial framework to improve Roma people’s lives.

Bulgaria will soon receive more EU funds. Political will is needed to use them well. If the authorities continue promoting anti-Roma racism, the European Commission should consider starting infringement proceedings against Bulgaria for breaching EU antidiscrimination law as it did against the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

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