Roma meeting in Plovdiv 2002

Wed 20 Nov 2002


From 7-9 November 2002 a fact-finding mission was organised by the European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity and the Bulgarian Socialist Party, co-financed by Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Aim of the mission was to address the integration of Roma in Eastern Europe and the role of the European Union in this matter.


Roma are one of the largest, but most neglected minorities in Europe. Their history is one of discrimination, intolerance and violence and they continue to be subject to this. Two thirds of the minority live in Eastern Europe. The enlargement of the European Union will eventually bring in between five and six million EU citizens of Roma origin. After enlargement Roma will most probably seize the opportunities EU membership offers them to improve their situation. Many Roma live in poor regions, which will soon be able to apply for funding from the main EU funds. The extent to which an enlarged Union succeeds in improving the plight of the Roma may be seen as a test of Europe’s social and democratic identity.

For the European Union it will be important to develop a coherent and efficient Roma policy. The European Union so far has tended to focus on efforts of applicant countries to adjust legislation to EU standards. Exerting pressure on the governments of applicant countries is important, but not enough. National legislation has to filter down to the regional level. Which initiatives can be taken to stimulate this development and to practically improve the situation of Roma? What can Roma themselves do about this? And what is the responsibility of the European Union in this matter?

To address these issues a fact-finding mission was organised in Bulgaria. Representatives of social democratic parties and Roma organisations from Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and the Netherlands took part in a fact-finding mission in the four Roma districts of the town of Plovdiv and then convened on a round table. Plovdiv is the city with the highest concentration of Roma in Bulgaria.


The fact-finding mission started on 8 November with an introduction by MEP Jan Marinus Wiersma, stressing the importance of solutions for the problems of Roma on European, national and local level in a social democratic way, based on the principles of solidarity and social justice. During the rest of the day two groups visited each two different Roma neighbourhoods in the town of Plovdiv. One group visited the largest Roma ghetto in Plovdiv, Stolipinovo, and the smaller Arman Mahala neighbourhood. The other group visited Sheker Mahala and Hadji Hassan Mahala. On Saturday the experiences of the two groups were presented and the problems and possible solutions were discussed in a round table.

By visiting the neighbourhoods the harsh conditions immediately became visible. Inhabitants of the neighbourhoods turned to the participants to explain their problems. One of the first things that was brought under the attention of the participants was that many of the inhabitants of the Roma neighbourhoods said that they were no Roma, but Turks. They speak Turkish and are Muslim contrary to the Bulgarian Roma who speak Romany or Bulgarian and are Orthodox Christian.

Despite the differences between the neighbourhoods it was clear that there were some common problems. First of all people complained that they were unemployed and had little money to spend. Many of them in the past used to have cleaning jobs or work in the factories. Since the economic situation in Bulgaria started worsening, many factories in Plovdiv closed down, leaving many people unemployed. Another reason people gave for their unemployment was that they are being discriminated against. A difference between the Muslim Roma and the Christian Roma in this respect are the better opportunities for the Muslim Roma to earn money in a grey sector, especially by developing trade with Turkey. The Christian Roma are to a larger degree stuck in a local, often informal, economy.

Connected to the unemployment problem is the low education level of Roma. The education for Roma has worsened over the last ten years. The educational system is highly segregated (as well as the neighbourhoods). Many children do not attend school because their parents are unemployed and do not have money for books and shoes. Instead children are send off to work. A vicious circle has arisen. Another painful fact is that some Roma children are send to special schools for disabled people and people who ‘do not fit in’ society. Illiteracy levels are 60% higher than six years ago.

The living conditions of Roma are very bad and unhygienic. Many Roma do not have health insurance, while at the same time there is an increase of serious diseases. For example, 60% of the TBC victims are Roma, among them 25% children. The houses are self constructed and in around 80% of the cases illegal.

Many people live on a small surface under bad living circumstances. The roads are not paved, turning the neighbourhoods into a muddy pool when it rains, as was the case during the working visits. Trash is scattered around. Some of the participants stressed the role of the mentality of Roma in this matter: containers for collecting trash are empty and when infrastructure is constructed, materials are being stolen and sold. Because of the illegality of the houses there is a problem with the provision of services. Last year in February a serious riot took place over electricity. The provider wanted to cut off electricity since bills were not paid (dues reached 3 mln Euro). The electricity company now provides courses for people on how to fill in application forms and even manages to collect some money in the neighbourhood.

An important issue at the round table was the participation of Roma in organisations, political parties and at all levels of governance, as a means to improve their situation. The organisational level of Roma is very low. A problem is the fact that Roma from different neighbourhoods do not feel connected, or even distance themselves from each other. The inhabitants from for example Sheker Mahala distance themselves from the Stolipinovo ghetto, stressing that the people in this neighbourhood are criminals and maffiosi, whereas they live in peace. Even within a neighbourhood it is difficult to get people organised. There seems to be a competition for leadership.

There was an agreement that representation in political parties would be best arranged by representation in conventional political parties instead of parties based on ‘ethnicity’. Parties based on ethnicity are forbidden by law in Bulgaria. Especially for the left wing parties a role should be fulfilled here. The Bulgaria Socialist Party already has a number of Roma representatives and aims to give more attention to the problems of the Roma in the future. However, Roma themselves seem to have lost their trust in politics. Politicians have come to the neighbourhoods before elections with food and made promises which they did not fulfill afterwards. During the discussion it was stressed that a Roman intelligentsia is necessary for the development of a good representation of Roma.

The Roma neighbourhoods do get some attention from the Plovdiv municipality. For example in Stolipinovo a project aimed at the improvement of primary needs has started. Half of the budget which is in total 10 mln Euro has already been spent, but no results are visible. Quite often during the conference the ineffectiveness of projects, most of them being financed by international NGO's and European Union funds, and misuse of funds by people who enrich themselves, were mentioned. To help overcome this problem it was found very important that contact between the executors of a project and the people of the neighbourhood is intensified and transparency is enhanced. Wiersma committed himself to check in Brussels the issue of misuse of funds.

It would not be right only to blame the authorities for not paying enough attention to the situation of Roma. Due to Bulgaria’s dire economic situation many Bulgarians are living in bad conditions. Roma are in the unfortunate position of being the poorest of the poor. The issue of improvement of their conditions should be addressed mainly at the local level, with the initiative of Roma themselves. National and European funds can help stimulate this.

During the round table, the Coalition for Bulgaria, of which BSP is an important member, handed out a declaration on the situation of Roma and the implementation of the Framework Convention. Also the European Forum of Democracy and Solidarity presented a manifest with recommendations on how to tackle the problems of Roma.

ANNEX 1 : Manifest European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity

The workshop ‘ Beyond Rights and Responsibilities ’ was held in Plovdiv (Bulgaria) from 7-9 November. It was organised by the European Forum For Democracy and Solidarity (EFDS) – a body founded in 1993 by the Social Democratic parties in the EU, with the aim of supporting democratisation processes in Central and Eastern Europe. The event was organised with the support of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and Westminster Foundation.

Representatives of social democratic parties and Roma organisations from Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Macedonia, the Netherlands, and Romania took part in a fact-finding mission on behalf of European Social democracy in the four Roma districts of the town of Plovdiv and then convened on a round table. The practical problems of Roma, such as housing, health care, education and unemployment, were addressed. Particular emphasis was put on the participation and emancipation of the Roma – what can be done so that they are better represented in social life.

These discussions were held against the background of the upcoming enlargement of the European Union, which will bring between five and six million new European citizens from Roma origin. The Social Democrats in Europe regard it their duty to help Roma people in an enlarged Union, and to keep their situation high on the agenda of the EU.

The European Commission reports on the candidate countries devote much attention to the situation of the Roma minority. If we compare the 2002 conclusions of the Commission with previous years we see that much work has been done to improve the situation of the Roma in Central and Eastern Europe. Most countries have adopted a national policy for the Roma and made progress in the implementation of Roma policy, including increased financial support at national and local level. In most countries though, Roma are still being discriminated in their daily lives. More structural measures are needed in order to achieve significant results remedying discrimination in access to education, housing and employment. The adoption of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation would be an important step forward in all countries. Also, regional and local authorities, which are indispensable for the implementation of policy, have to participate more. Coordination between these different levels of government has to be strengthened.

This brings us back to our working visit in Plovdiv. Bulgaria has made little progress to remedy problems of social discrimination and to take concrete action to improve very poor living conditions. For what we have learned, we have drawn the following recommendations:

  • The European Social Democrats, through the Party of European Socialists (PES) and the European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity (EFDS) engage themselves to work for the creation of a coherent and effective Roma policy on a European Union level as the expression of justified solidarity with an excluded group.
  • The PES and the EFDS, through their network and resources, engage themselves to work towards the emancipation of Roma in Eastern Europe and the integration of their efforts for self-determination, specifically through organising training seminars for Roma leaders and through highlighting the issue in meetings with the Social Democratic parties of Eastern and Western Europe.
  • The PES and the EFDS express their condemnation of the pitiful conditions in which Roma live in the town of Plovdiv, while at the same time they realise that such conditions are not in any case limited neither to this town nor to this country. We can and should not ignore the broader context of poverty in Central and Eastern Europe.
  • We urge for a more decentralised Roma policy, due to our belief that democracycan be best implemented at a local level – closest to the people.
  • We urge the local and regional authorities to create quota for the employment of representatives of ethnic groups in their own structures
  • We urge the appropriate medical and hygiene authorities in the town of Plovdiv to be more tolerant in their treatment of the Roma people and the districts where they live.
  • We recommend the creating of an ad-hoc committee representing all interested parts to come up with a conclusion on how the problem with the electricity in the town of Plovdiv can be solved.
  • We advise the national and regional employment services and agencies to come up with a specialised programme for employment of minority groups.
  • We welcome the activities of Romani NGO’s in the town; however, we also recognise that not enough is being done on lobbying for and representing Romani interests at local, regional, national and European level.
  • The EFDS engages itself to use its influence in the European institutions and NGO’s to highlighten the need of European-funded projects on employment, education, housing and health care in the Plovdiv Romani districts.
  • We recognise the seriousness of the problem with the Roma participation. Therefore, we work closely with our partners from the Bulgarian Socialist Party and urge them to continue their efforts in integrating Roma members, clubs and organisations at all levels of their structures. We also find it necessary for the other political parties in Bulgaria to follow this example.
  • The latter can also be addressed to other countries from Eastern Europe which are home to Roma minorities.
  • We want to help promote the cultural dialogue about a better integration of the Roma in the countries where they live.

ANNEX 2: Declaration of the political consultative council of Coalition for Bulgaria

(unofficial translation from Bulgarian)

CONCERNING: the situation of the Roma and the implementation of the Framework Convention

For more than ten years, the Roma in Bulgaria live in conditions of rising misery and insecurity. The Framework convention on national minorities was adopted by the 38th National Assembly and was accepted by the current and former governments as a formal commitment. The cases of discrimination are high, the ethnical intolerance multiplies, as well as the rude handling when social and daily problems of Roma are being solved.

The Bulgarian traditions of tolerant attitude towards the Roma and cohabitation are being destroyed. The high level of their social and civic integration, achieved after tens of years of systematic care by the state, is already in the past. The life of the Roma families is being marginalised, while their typical places of residence are being put in conditions of growing social isolation.


In practice, there is not one single social activity which did not concern the Roma ethnos. The life of the Roma and even of the future generations is destabilised because of:

  • durable high unemployment, which encompasses up to 90% of the Roma in working age;
  • primary and secondary illiteracy, characteristic for half of the Roma children
  • loss of qualification and motives for looking for a job which dooms a whole generation for life without secure incomes, health and pension insurance.
  • The turning of the Roma districts and villages into gethos, deprived of social, medical and administrative services.
  • Growing criminalisation – thefts, prostitution, drugs trafficking and illegal trade – which periodically feeds up hostile and even racist feelings toward the Roma among citizens and institutions.


The majority of the Roma are looking for ways out of this humiliating situation themselves. They find that in the growing, often illegal emigration to the European countries, or in the black economy. The self-salvation is not possible. The non-governmental organisations, working for the social reintegration of the Roma, are not able to replace the state and to release the state of its responsibilities. The European Commission recommendations for fighting discrimination through a system of economical, institutional and legal measures should be implemented.

The government does not have a wholesome programme for improving the living standard and social integration of the Roma. The projects of the current government for offering jobs to the Roma in condition to work in exchange for the welfare subsidies, and for improving the system of energy subsidies in the winter deserve support. However, they are still in a beginner’s phase and need rigid control and a continuous dialogue with the Roma and the local authorities, in order to reach a durable success.


The priority objectives of our work with the local authorities, the non-governmental organisations and the parliament are as follows:

  • Durable employment, instead of temporary and random measures; employment, based on real schemes, creation of an appropriate qualification and institutional support for the Roma able to work.
  • Access of the Roma children to school through material support of the state and the local councils. Overcoming of the primary and secondary illiteracy of the new generation of Roma, through non-traditional forms including.
  • Making basic medical services availabl, especially preventive checks of children and women, according to the minimal health standards valid in the country; full reach of the health insurance for the children and the elderly.
  • Social living places for the Roma, in vicinity to the traditional for them living districts.
  • Infra-structural project for modernisation of the Roma villages and districts.
  • Creation of an Agency for Minorities and increasing the participation of the Roma in the state and municipal administration.

Coalition for Bulgaria declares that the fore-mentioned priorities engage its partners and experts even in the framework of the current mandate of the parliament.

As an opposition group in parliament, we will support the initiatives of the ruling majority for improving the living standards of the Roma and for implementing the recommendations of the international institutions.

For us it is of great importance to improve the expert and working relation with the international community, the non-governmental organisations and the European funds. Bulgaria, with its sharply declined economical potential, is not in a position to find a lasting solution of the problem with ensuring normal living conditions for the Roma minority. We insist on an emphasized attention to this problem, and we will use our political and institutional contacts with the European partners in order to meet this challenge.

For us as an opposition today, and as a governing power tomorrow, the Framework Convention for minorities is a serious and daily commitment.


Political Consultative Council of BSP