Sofia Bulgaria and other Eastern European and Balkan nations with significant populations of the Roma minority can easily be compared to African-Americans and their situation in the American South of fifty years ago. They are a despised minority that has begun to see some improvement after years of forced segregation, disempowerment, and secondary status, but they are still impoverished and largely powerless. The good news, after several hours of meeting with key Roma activists in Bulgaria, where the largest Roma population in Europe lives, is that they are rising with ambitious organizational and political plans that, if successful, could be transformative over coming decades.
The statistics are dismal and contradictory. Roma populations are seriously undercounted in the Bulgarian census with some stating their ethnicity and as much as 10% of the population leaving the question unanswered with arguably even answering disingenuously to protect themselves and their status. Recent census figures, though disputed, count 325,343 Roma in Bulgaria or 4.4% of the population, but other figures including the European Union estimate, claim there are 800,000 or more than 10% of the total population. Some nongovernmental groups argue that the population is increasing by 35,000 per year, and that the number is significantly more than one-million, and perhaps twice the EU estimate.
What is beyond dispute is the level of poverty in the community. Though decreasing, 21stcentury figures hover above 60% of the Roma population below the poverty line with unemployment figures over 50%.
Illiteracy is decreasing but the situation in the schools constitutes de facto segregation even if not de jure segregation. The government contends that there has never been a mandatory segregation policy, but that it is a matter of “administrative districts.” There is no pretense of “separate, but equal,” rather the government argues that this situation is simply a matter of people living in close communities. An Open Society Institute report cited in Wikipedia is explicit:
A monitoring report by the Open Society Institute found that Romani children and teenagers are less likely to enroll in primary and secondary schools than the majority population and less likely to complete their education if they do. Between 60% and 77% of Romani children enroll in primary education (ages 6–15), compared to 90-94% of ethnic Bulgarians. Only 6%-12% of Romani teenagers enroll in secondary education (ages 16–19). The drop-out rate is significant, but hard to measure, as many are formally enrolled but rarely attend classes. The report also indicates that Romani children and teenagers attend de facto segregated “Roma schools” in majority-Romani neighbourhoods and villages. These “Roma schools” offer inferior quality education; many are in bad physical condition and lack necessary facilities such as computers. As a result, Romani literacy rates, already below those for ethnic Bulgarians, are much lower still for Romani who have attended segregated schools.
Activists argue that housing is the key issue since the lack of a governmental support policy has led to informal and often haphazard construction everywhere, often on municipal lands without title. Other key objections are dealing with the large youth cohort which means supplementing education and developing new community leadership styles, and ending “hate speech” and blatant discrimination.
Organizational ambitions are analogous to the civil rights movement focusing on pressuring parties and office holders without aligning or forming a separate party, but holding feet to the fire on programs and accountability both in elections and socially. One-hundred organizations of Roma have already coalesced around some issues and demands. Leaders have set a goal of mobilizing more than 100,000 Roma in Bulgaria over the next year, and are looking to build organizational and communications infrastructure to make the movement sustainable and powerful.
Please enjoy Natalie Jean’s What Would You Do for Love? Thanks to KABF.