Throughout history, European states have consistently discriminated against the Roma, the largest ethnic minority in Europe. To improve the situation of the Roma across Europe, the European Union (EU) recommended a framework for National Roma Integration Strategies (NRIS Framework) in 2013. The NRIS Framework addresses four primary policy areas: education, employment, healthcare, and housing. Under EU Law, this framework is a non-binding recommendation that establishes state objectives and sets forth strategies to achieve them.
Bulgaria had adopted twenty-eight regional strategies and 220 municipal strategies from the NRIS Framework, according to the 2015 Report of the Working Group for the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review. Following this report, Bulgaria made commitments to forbid ethnically segregated schools. The Bulgarian government also implemented immunization and check-up clinics, along with health mediators, in Roma settlements to address healthcare accessibility issues. However, in 2017, hospitals were still segregating maternity wards between Roma and other Bulgarians. Roma communities in Bulgaria have high rates of poverty and unemployment; they are also increasingly targets of ethnically-motivated violence. Further, the Roma in Bulgaria are disproportionately subject to forced evictions and unfair housing practices. Recently, the village mayor in Voyvodinovo advised the local Roma community to flee after an officer was allegedly assaulted by two men from the Roma community. After they fled, authorities began to demolish their homes at the edge of the village. Despite national commitments to improve the situation of the Roma, discrimination and ethnically-motivated violence against the Roma continue—and they have been on the rise.
Aside from the NRIS Framework, other binding international legal instruments may provide recourse for the Roma in Bulgaria. Bulgaria ratified both the ICCPR and the ICESCR in 1970. Articles 26 and 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) establish the rights of equal protection of all persons and ethnic groups’ right to enjoy their culture. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) also establishes the right to an adequate standard of living (Article 11), highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (Article 12), and education (Article 13).
Taken together, these binding international legal instruments protect the human rights of the Roma. Therefore, discrimination against the Roma in education, healthcare, and housing is a violation of these human rights. Even after the Bulgarian government prioritized access to education (National Report) for the Roma as a key policy concern, the UN’s Fourth Periodic Report on the ICCPR (2018) found that “Roma children increasingly attended de facto segregated schools.” School segregation, forced evictions, and ethnically-motivated violence are violations of established human rights. To uphold its obligations under the ICCPR and ICESCR, Bulgaria needs to take steps to protect the human rights of its Roma communities.
Bulgaria’s most recent action in the name of “integration” and protecting human rights for the Roma community is to propose a draft bill that grants free abortions to Roma women who already have three children. This bill openly discriminates against the Roma community, and it fails to provide any improvement in the accessibility of health care. The government seemingly believes that controlling the birth rate of the Roma community, but no other group, is an effective way to promote integration. This bill may violate the inherent right to life, codified in Article 6 of the ICCPR, but, more clearly, this bill violates Article 17’s prohibition on arbitrary interference with privacy, family, or home because the purpose of the program, according to Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov, is to control the birth rate of the Roma community. Bulgaria, in aiming to control the birth rate of an ethnic group within its territory, is putting itself in a position to use access to abortion as a cover for greater human rights violations against the Roma and their right to personhood, equal protection, and the right to enjoy their own culture.
Despite strong anti-Roma sentiment from national leaders, local communities are working with organizations, like the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), to improve access to education and healthcare. The FRA, through the Local Engagement for Roma Inclusion Program (LERI) has worked in two Bulgarian communities to include Roma in the discussion regarding the best ways for the Roma to integrate into broader Bulgarian communities. In Pavlikeni, LERI and the local Roma community have worked together to create a common action plan to address the lack of health insurance among the Roma population there. LERI has worked with the Roma community in Stara Zagora to map evicted families’ needs and to support the Roma community in working with the municipal council to shape local housing policy. While national sentiments are not looking bright for protecting and furthering human rights of the Roma, there are local community groups that are working to improve the situation of Bulgaria’s Roma.