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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Bulgaria : Roma

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Bulgaria : Roma, 2008, available at: [accessed 26 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The 2001 census recorded 370,908 Roma (4.6 per cent of the total population). However, non-governmental sources estimate that there were some 700,000 Roma in Bulgaria. According to the authorities, this large discrepancy between this figure and the census results is due to many Roma identifying themselves as Bulgarians, Turks and to a lesser extent as Romanians. The Roma community is deeply segmented and divided by religion, clan affiliation, language and traditional occupation. About half the Roma are Muslim; others are Christian Orthodox, and some are Protestant.

Historical context

Roma are first mentioned in Bulgaria in the fourteenth century but may have entered the country much earlier. Under Ottoman rule, many Roma embraced Islam.

The Roma were an early target of communist assimilation policy, which included name-changing and forcible settlement in fixed communities. After 1989, Roma newspapers resumed publication and cultural activities recommenced. Several Roma political organizations were established, most notably the Roma Democratic Union and the United Roma Organization. The Roma Democratic Union's attempt to register as a political party in 1990 failed in light of the constitutional ban on ethnic or religious parties. Since then, de facto Roma parties have participated in Bulgarian politics, albeit without the Roma label.

Despite a generally improved situation for minorities in Bulgaria following the demise of the communist regime in 1989, Roma continued to suffer widespread exclusion. Authorities routinely discouraged Roma from exercising their rightful claims to land as the state has dissolved agricultural collectives. A large proportion of the population remained mired in poverty, with little access to social benefits, healthcare or quality education. Roma children were overwhelmingly sent to schools in areas of concentrated Roma settlement, amounting in practice to their segregation from other Bulgarian pupils. Moreover, predominantly Roma schools were usually inferior to non-Roma schools, and lacked adequate resources. Roma children, most of whom come from difficult backgrounds, faced the added weight of prejudice at school, regarded by much of the educational system as less capable than children of other ethnicities. On the basis of prejudice, many Roma children were sent to 'special' schools for the mentally disabled. Illiteracy rates for Roma were on the rise.

After years of delay, in 1999 the government came to an agreement with Roma representatives on a Framework Programme for Equal Integration of Roma, and some changes followed. In 2002 the government introduced measures aimed at ending the practice of sending Roma children to schools for the mentally impaired on the basis of ethnicity. Roma NGOs were able to take advantage of an anti-discrimination law passed in 2003 that allowed civil society organizations to file public- interest lawsuits. However, despite marginal improvements, implementation of government initiatives on Roma exclusion lagged. In 2003 and 2004 the government adopted more specific action plans and programmes, but financial resources for the implementation of these remained scarce.

Current issues

Ahead of Bulgaria's accession to the European Union in January 2007 the government adopted a number of measures aimed at improving Roma rights. Whilst Roma in particular remain vastly under-represented at the national level, their representation at municipal level has increased markedly in recent years. Romani language teaching has been scarcely available, but this may soon change, as in 2003 two universities introduced training programmes for Romani-language teachers. A health initiative in 2005 recognized the special needs of marginalized minority groups, especially Roma and Turks, and outlined a strategy to address the situation. In 2003 the government signed up to participate in the Decade of Roma Inclusion, sponsored by the World Bank, Open Society Institute, and Hungarian government; the programme launched in 2005, and aims to improve the situation for Roma in the areas of housing, employment, healthcare, and address issues of ethnic and gender discrimination. In 2006 the government adopted regulations aimed at reducing segregation of Roma in schools. Nevertheless, Roma remain deeply marginalized in Bulgaria, and routinely confront police abuse and harassment; complaints of ill treatment by police or others are often not investigated. Nationally, unemployment among Roma is estimated at 65 per cent.

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