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United Nations Expert urges Bulgaria to turn policy commitments into concrete action for Roma

SOFIA: On conclusion of her official visit to Bulgaria, the United Nations Independent Expert on minority issues, Gay McDougall, has called upon the Government of Bulgaria “to match its EU and NGO inspired policies on Roma integration with Government-led implementation and the financial resources necessary to improve the living conditions experienced by the Roma in Bulgaria, who are more than 10 percent of the population.”

“Concrete actions on the ground and adequate financial commitment are essential,” she emphasized. “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, she concluded.”    

The Independent Expert travelled to 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, anti-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. She found minimal evidence of a strong Government commitment to Roma equality and remains unconvinced that ensuring such equality is a high priority for the current Government.

The Expert considers 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.  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% live in dwellings considered to be outside the Municipal Master Plan and are not considered eligible for infrastructure services.  They have no running water, sewage, paved streets, waste collection or street lights. 

Ms. McDougall 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.  While current law and policy is that students are free to attend any school preferred by the parents, this option is largely illusory for Roma children locked in segregated residential areas not serviced by municipal transportation systems and whose parents fear the racist treatment their children will likely face in distant majority schools”.

Research by NGOs estimates that between 50 to 70 percent of Roma students of school age attend residentially segregated schools. Roma children are consistently underperforming in educational outcomes compared to other children, have high drop-out rates and high levels of illiteracy.

“The initiatives that  have been undertaken to transport  children daily to attend mixed schools outside Roma ghettos and to provide school meals and support services to the students, have been implemented largely by a small number of poorly resourced Roma non-governmental organizations, the lion’s share of whose funding comes from international sources matched by a small percentage of government contributions. These NGOs bear much of the burden of implementing de-segregation policies that the Government endorses but fails to fully lead or fund in practice.”  

According to the UN expert, the Government appears to be mostly an observer rather than playing a leadership role in school desegregation efforts.  The Ministry of Education has established the Center for Educational Integration of Children and Students of Ethnic Minorities, which serves as the primary funnel for international funding.  Some emphasis has been placed on pre-school education and some funds have gone to municipalities to refurbish physically decrepit segregated Roma neighborhood schools. A Regional Inspector in the Pazardzhik District explained efforts to work with Roma parents to encourage school attendance.  However, her description of efforts at de-segregation focused on limiting the number of Roma children to 4 or 5 per class in order to avoid tensions.  On the other hand, one school principal at the same meeting described his school as successfully achieving a 50-50 student body.

While the Constitution, the National Education Act and a strong Protection Against Discrimination Act all make discrimination in education unlawful, no court has ordered Government to comply with its obligation to de-segregate schools.

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 Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, revealed a shallow commitment with little evidence-based programming, benchmarking,  monitoring, or evaluation.  There was clear resistance to the use of ethnicity-based disaggregated data and the notion of using special measures to address long-standing inequalities in disadvantaged communities, such as the Roma. 

Additionally, the level of Government budgetary commitment appears woefully inadequate to-date, according to the Independent Expert. “Notwithstanding the evident effects of the current financial crisis on the wider Bulgarian economy, the message sent by this picture is discouraging.  Government policies appear to be mostly rhetorical”, she stated. “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”, said Ms. McDougall.

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 Government officials that strongly indicated that their view of Roma communities is that they are predominately a criminal element in Bulgarian society. Roma remain vastly under-represented in political institutions and decision making bodies at both the national and local levels. There is currently only one Roma MP and a limited number of Mayors and local government councilors.

Ms. McDougall noted that Roma community leaders and Roma local officials frequently voiced their frustration at the Government’s failure to constructively address the infrastructure problems of most Roma neighborhoods of significant size such as Stolipinovo and Fakulteta (over 40,000 each) parts of which have existed for generations. They called for review of some national legislation, such as the Territorial Planning Act, to allow for the incorporation of these Roma communities into municipal Master Plans.  

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. The Independent Expert commends the Government and civil society leaders who immediately and loudly condemned the 20 May 2011 attack on the Mosque in Sofia. Political parties that associate themselves with hate-motivated acts of violence should have no place in Government and their culpable members must be promptly prosecuted.

In the course of her consultations in Sofia and other regions of the country, including Blagoevgrad, Pazardzhik, Plovdiv and Kurdjali, Ms. McDougall met with representatives of numerous minority communities including those communities who self-identify as ethnic Macedonians and Pomaks to gain an understanding of their issues.

The Independent Expert emphasized that she met many committed people working at the level of local authorities; Mayors, local councilors and experts. Their efforts need greater support, financial resources and commitment from the national Government, she stated. In some instances, national legislation needs to be reviewed and amended to facilitate their efforts to promote and protect the rights of minorities at the local level.  Equally, where local authorities fail to implement national legislation or policies, particularly with regard to minority rights, anti-discrimination and Roma integration, they should face effective sanctions.

Ms. McDougall commended the work of the Commission for Protection Against Discrimination and the Ombudsman. The resources available to these bodies should be increased and their capacities strengthened to enable them to fulfill their potential to fight discrimination and promote equality in Bulgaria.

The Independent Expert sincerely thanked the Government of Bulgaria for its invitation to conduct an official visit to Bulgaria and for its excellent cooperation with her in the preparation and conduct of her visit. She highlighted that she was provided with the meetings with senior Government officials that she requested and stated that she looks forward to a continuing constructive engagement with the Government of Bulgaria relating to minority issues.

The Independent Expert emphasized the preliminary nature of her views and that a final detailed report would be issued before the end of the year and subsequently presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Under her UN mandate, the Independent Expert is required to promote implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities* and to identify challenges as well as positive practices with regard to minority issues. Following her visit, the Independent Expert will present a report containing her findings and recommendations to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

(*)  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

ENDS

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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