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Bulgaria: Situation of Roma, including treatment by society and government authorities

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ottawa
Publication Date 6 October 2009
Citation / Document Symbol BGR103246.E
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Bulgaria: Situation of Roma, including treatment by society and government authorities, 6 October 2009, BGR103246.E, available at: [accessed 11 December 2017]
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.

Societal perception

In 12 August 2009 correspondence sent to the Research Directorate, the Chairperson of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) indicated that there had been no discernible changes to the societal perception of Roma throughout the previous decade. The Chairperson stated that "[t]he level of prejudice and social distance remains high" (BHC 12 Aug. 2009). On 13 August 2009, a legal consultant with NGO Roma Together, a Roma organization created in 2004 to defend minority rights that is based in the town of Polski Trambesh, stated that "Bulgarian society, though not openly violent towards the Roma in the past, always treated them as 'second class' human beings ..." (NGO Roma Together 13 Aug. 2009).

The Legal Consultant from NGO Roma Together estimated that approximately 80 percent of Roma are dependent on social assistance, and reported that a "wide range" of journalists, politicians and social workers sometimes refer to this phenomenon as "receiving social welfare by profession" (ibid.). At the local level, Roma are "perceived as lazy, incapable and exploiting the state" especially, but not exclusively, by extremist nationalist groups such as Ataka (ibid.). Ataka, which won 9 percent of the vote and 21 seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections (Freedom House 2009), has reportedly lost support since its peak of popularity in 2006, with less than 6 percent support among voters in December 2007 and declining numbers of participants in rallies organized by the party (IPS 6 Mar. 2008).

A July 2009 survey conducted by the Open Society Institute (OSI) found that most Bulgarians agreed that Roma are "thieving," "dirty," and "ignorant" (AFP 21 July 2009). Fewer than 6 percent of Bulgarians said they would enrol their children in schools with large numbers of Romani children, while about 26 percent said they would accept a Romani person as a neighbour (ibid.). According to both the Legal Consultant of NGO Roma Together and the Chairperson of the BHC, in some respects there has been a "deterioration" in the social perception of Roma in recent years (NGO Roma Together 13 Aug. 2009; BHC 12 Aug. 2009) as shown for example by "widespread hate speech" by groups like Ataka (ibid.). However, in July 2009 the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) wrote that "there is no significant change in treatment of this minority group with the decline in the economy," though it cautioned that this was not an indication that discrimination has necessarily diminished (ERRC 31 July 2009b).


Human rights sources continue to report on discrimination against Roma in the fields of employment, health care, education and housing (AI 2009; Freedom House 2009).

In a report submitted to the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the ERRC summarized the most significant discrimination-related issues facing Bulgarian Roma, including:

  • Racially motivated crimes against Roma by both police and private individuals and the deficiencies of the Bulgarian criminal justice system in prosecuting these crimes;

  • Education: Practices of racial segregation of Roma and other forms of discrimination in this area are still widespread in the Bulgarian education system;

  • Housing: Implementation of housing policies in Bulgaria is to a great degree infected with racial animus;

  • Health care: The Bulgarian Health Insurance Act, which guarantees state-provided health insurance to registered unemployed individuals and those receiving social assistance, leaves many Roma without health care services;

  • Social Assistance: Amendments to the Social Assistance Act in 2006 had a [...] impact on Roma, many of whom lost the right to social assistance. (ERRC 1 Feb. 2009)


The Legal Consultant of NGO Roma Together noted a decline in the situation of Bulgarian Roma in the areas of housing and employment (NGO Roma Together 13 Aug. 2009). However, according to the Chairperson of the BHC, some Romani neighbourhoods have benefited from improvements in recent years as a result of efforts by local governments, while other Romani neighbourhoods have deteriorated (BHC 12 Aug. 2009).

With many Roma living in "slums," the Legal Consultant of NGO Roma Together cited housing as "one of the major failures of state policy towards Roma" (NGO Roma Together 13 Aug. 2009). Human rights sources highlight forced evictions as a notable problem among Bulgarian Roma (ibid.; AI 2009). For instance, the Legal Consultant stated that many Roma who live in slums, without official papers for their dwellings, especially in "big cities with Roma ghettos" such as Sofia, Plovdiv and Sliven, are susceptible to eviction with no compensation (NGO Roma Together 13 Aug. 2009). Since 2006, there have been a number of forced eviction attempts in large cities, some of which have been successful (BHC 12 Aug. 2009). In September 2009, the Sofia News Agency reported that 200 Romani families formed a human chain to protest the demolition of their "illegal houses" in the Black Sea city of Burgas; however, the city's mayor Dimitar Nikolov stated that all of the evicted residents had been given "alternative council accommodation with low rents" (8 Sept. 2009). An earlier July 2008 eviction in Sofia affecting 180 Roma was averted at the last minute following the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights (EU 2009, 42; BHC 12 Aug. 2009).

To address the segregation and poor housing quality that often characterizes Romani communities, the government has set up a two-stage national program to improve Romani access to adequate housing "by legalising housing built largely without planning permission in recent decades and then by bringing it up to standard" (COE 24 Feb. 2009, Para. 65). In 2009, the government earmarked 20 million leva [about 16 million Canadian dollars ( 21 Sept. 2009)] to the National Programme for Improving the Living Conditions of the Roma in Bulgaria, doubling the 10 million leva budget of 2008 (US Fed News 29 Jan. 2009). According to the Legal Consultant, forced evictions have yet to be adequately tackled by Bulgarian legislation, and despite the introduction of new legal provisions to give legal status to Romani settlements and provide social housing to Romani families, "there is a need of strong political will" in order for this to be achieved (NGO Roma Together 13 Aug. 2009).


A December 2008 report published jointly by the BHC and the ERRC estimates that between 44 and 70 percent of Romani children attend "Romani schools" located in or near Romani neighbourhoods (BHC/ERRC Dec. 2008, 14). In order to improve the quality of education available to Romani citizens, Bulgaria has participated in school desegregation projects and training for teachers on multiculturalism (EU 2009, 50). According to the Chairperson of the BHC, however, since the 1990s there have been few changes in the situation of Romani education, despite desegregation programs undertaken by a number of NGOs (BHC 12 Aug. 2009). "On balance," the Chairperson observed, "in some areas Roma education became more segregated" (ibid.); the OSI came to a similar conclusion following a study undertaken between 2001 and 2005 (BHC/ERRC Dec. 2008, 14). The Council of Europe (COE) European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) states that it remains too early to assess the effectiveness of recent government efforts to improve the quality of education provided to Romani children in Bulgaria (COE 24 Feb. 2009, Para. 45).


Various sources estimate the unemployment rate among Bulgarian Roma at between 56 and 80 percent (ibid., Para. 59; ERRC 31 July 2009b; 7 Apr. 2009). In addition to discrimination against Roma by potential employers on account of their ethnicity, Bulgarian Roma are often limited to working low-skilled jobs requiring manual labour, due to low education levels, "which enforces the negative stereotypes against the Roma minority" (NGO Roma Together 13 Aug. 2009). Roma were able to benefit from the "economic boom" of the previous decade, but the Chairperson of the BHC observed that they are "first to be fired from their jobs" in the current economic climate (BHC 12 Aug. 2009).

Bulgaria's Ministry of Labour and Social Policy includes a Roma Integration Council to look at the employment situation for Romani citizens (COE 24 Feb. 2009, Para. 58). However, according to the Chairperson of the BHC, the situation of Roma with regard to social assistance has worsened in recent years (BHC 12 Aug. 2009). In August 2009, the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) ruled against Bulgaria in the provision of social assistance (ibid.; ERRC 6 Aug. 2009). A complaint had been brought to court by the ERRC and BHC which argued that new rules limiting the time period that citizens are allowed to receive social assistance "had an illegal and disproportionate impact on Roma, women and other marginalised groups" (ibid.). This followed a similar finding by the ECSR in April 2009 when it found Bulgaria responsible for discriminatory practices in the provision of health care services to members of the Romani community (ibid. 1 May 2009).


Apart from the employment sector, the Chairperson of the BHC believes that "mistreatment" of Roma occurs most of all in the area of healthcare (BHC 12 Aug. 2009). Several sources indicate that in addition to higher levels of poor health among the Romani population, many Bulgarian Roma, perhaps half (ERRC 31 July 2009a), do not possess medical insurance coverage (EU 2009, 53; 7 Apr. 2009; COE 24 Feb. 2009, Para. 71), which is available only to persons who are employed or who receive unemployment benefits (ibid.). However, according to ERRC, medical insurance is available to people receiving either social assistance or unemployment benefits (31 July 2009a). When an uninsured Romani woman was denied emergency medical care in a maternity clinic following a miscarriage, she was later awarded about 25 Euro in compensation by the Sofia District Court, the amount she had demanded, though the court "acknowledged that she deserved a more substantial remedy" (EU 2009, 52-53).


The Legal Consultant of NGO Roma Together reported that "some cases of open violence occur within the country" (NGO Roma Together 13 Aug. 2009). Exact figures are unavailable because the government does not disaggregate crime data according to the ethnicity of perpetrators or victims (BHC/ERRC Dec. 2008, 5). In December 2008, a joint report published by the BHC and the ERRC cited unofficial data stating that there had been an increase in "private racist attacks" against Roma and foreigners in recent years with a peak in 2007 (ibid., 7).

Human rights sources acknowledge cases of police brutality against Roma, but note that such cases are rare (NGO Roma Together 13 Aug. 2009) or have declined since the 1990s (BHC 12 Aug. 2009). In August 2009, the BHC reported a "mass use of excessive force against Roma by police in a disco in Pleven" (ibid.). The Chairperson of the BHC noted that "[a]lthough the conviction rate against police officers for ill treatment improved somewhat over the past several years" he does not believe that this has affected the incidence of police brutality or significantly reduced impunity, although "severe" ill-treatment of Roma by police has declined (ibid.).

According to the Legal Consultant of NGO Roma Together, a more common problem is that police often subject Roma to ID checks "without any substantive reason" (NGO Roma Together 13 Aug. 2009; COE 24 Feb. 2009, Para. 136). However, the Chairperson of the BHC indicated that "[t]he treatment of Roma by the police improved slightly as a result of the EU pressure during the pre-accession period" (BHC 12 Aug. 2009).

NGO Roma Together keeps a database of incidents involving the mistreatment of Roma by officials from national or local governments (NGO Roma Together 13 Aug. 2009; ibid. n.d.b), including officials from the State Labour Agency and the State Social Agency (ibid. 13 Aug. 2009). This violation of Roma's rights may involve "harsh language, misinterpretation of domestic law, reluctance to provide social services and discrimination ..." (ibid.).

In order to improve relations between Roma and administrative authorities, in 2004 NGO Roma Together started a Roma Community Mediators program, in which Romani public servants in seven municipalities across the country assist Roma in their administrative dealings with labour or social welfare offices among others (ibid. n.d.a).


In cases of mistreatment or harassment on account of their ethnicity, Bulgarian Roma may either turn to the Anti-Discrimination Commission or to a court, though according to the Legal Consultant of NGO Roma Together, Roma with urgent problems may have a difficult time accessing timely redress due to lengthy court decisions (ibid. 13 Aug. 2009). In the social and health sectors, Constitutional Courts are "the only domestic mechanism," but do not deal with individual cases (ibid.). The Legal Consultant further noted that the "State Ombudsman seems to be reluctant in dealing with Roma rights-related cases" (ibid.). The BHC runs a Closed Institutions Programme, monitoring conditions of detainees in prisons and police detention facilities, among other institutions (BHC n.d.).

The Chairperson of the BHC indicated

[t]here are very few non-governmental organizations to which a Romani person can turn and, particularly in the sphere of the protection of Roma fundamental rights, there are fewer now than before. Roma in remote parts of the country are especially deprived of access to such organizations. (BHC 12 Aug. 2009)

Some NGOs provide legal assistance to Romani victims of mistreatment, but according to the Legal Consultant of NGO Roma Together, the help provided by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is often modest or limited in scope to a particular territory or case type (NGO Roma Together 13 Aug. 2009). The BHC operates a Legal Defence Programme which provides free legal aid in case of unlawful discrimination, but may not be able to provide aid to all applicants "[d]ue to the extremely high number of requests for legal aid" (BHC n.d.). Legal aid may be available in criminal, civil and administrative court cases and is managed by the National Legal Aid Office (COE 24 Feb. 2009, Para. 77).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


Agence France-Presse (AFP). 21 July 2009. "Bulgarians Prejudiced Against Roma, Blacks, Arabs: Study." (Factiva)

Amnesty International (AI). 2009. "Bulgaria." Amnesty International Report 2009. [Accessed 11 Sept. 2009]

Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC). 12 August 2009. Correspondence sent by the Chairperson.
_____. N.d. "Activities: What We Do." [Accessed 22 Sept. 2009]

Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC)/European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC). December 2008. Written Comments of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and the European Roma Rights Centre Concerning Bulgaria for Consideration by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination at its 74th Session. [Accessed 21 Sept. 2009]

Council of Europe (COE). 24 February 2009. European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI). ECRI Report on Bulgaria (Fourth Monitoring Cycle). [Accessed 21 Sept. 2009]

European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC). 6 August 2009. "European Committee Finds Bulgaria in Violation of Rights to Social Assistance." [Accessed 11 Sept. 2009]
_____. 31 July 2009a. Victoria Vasey. "Access to Health Care in Bulgaria: Marginalisation of Roma." Roma Rights Quarterly. [Accessed 31 July 2009]
_____. 31 July 2009b. Kamelia Dimitrova. "The Economic Crisis Closes in on Bulgarian Roma." Roma Rights Quarterly. [Accessed 31 July 2009]
_____. 1 May 2009. "European Committee Issues First International Ruling on Roma Health in ERRC Case Against Bulgaria." [Accessed 28 May 2009]
_____. 1 February 2009. "UN Discrimination Committee Reviews Bulgaria, Montenegro and Turkey." [Accessed 20 Feb. 2009]

European Union (EU). 2009. European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). Annual Report 2009. [Accessed 18 Sept. 2009]

Freedom House. 2009. "Bulgaria." Freedom in the World 2009. [Accessed 11 Sept. 2009]

Inter Press Service (IPS). 6 March 2008. Claudia Ciobanu. "Bulgaria: Anemic Rally Illustrates Waning Power of Far-Right." (Factiva) 7 April 2009. "More than Half of Roma People in Bulgaria Don't Work." [Accessed 11 Sept. 2009]

NGO Roma Together. 13 August 2009. Correspondence sent by a legal consultant.
_____. N.d.a. "Roma Community Mediators." [Accessed 22 Sept. 2009]
_____. N.d.b "Roma Minority Human Rights." [Accessed 21 Sept. 2009]

Sofia News Agency. 8 September 2009. "Bulgaria Roma Citizens Protest Over Burgas Housing Demolition." [Accessed 11 Sept. 2009]

US Fed News. 29 January 2009. "Bulgaria: Council of Ministers Adopted Action Plan for Improving Living Conditions of Roma in Bulgaria." (Bulgaria) 21 September 2009. "Universal Currency Converter Results." [Accessed 21 Sept. 2009]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources, including: Amalipe – Center for Interethnic Dialogue and Tolerance, Foundation "C.E.G.A. – Creating Effective Grassroots Alternatives," Integro Association Bulgaria, Open Society Institute (OSI), Professor of Sociology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Professor of Political Sociology at the Institute for East-European Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin.

Internet sites, including: British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Bulgarian News Agency, Courrier des Balkans, European Country of Origin Information Network (, Human Rights Watch (HRW), International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), Ministry of Interior of Bulgaria, National Police Service, NGO Roma Together, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Roma Edcuation Fund, Sofia Echo.

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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