18 Apr 2011 / 11:11

‘Roma Decade’ Passes Bulgarian Roma By

Nikoleta Popkostadinova

Nobody ever bothered building access roads to Block 20, an infamous housing estate in the south-eastern Bulgarian town of Yambol. Asphalt, electricity, running water and sewage pipes were abstract concepts for residents. Even windows were a rare luxury.

And yet, until just a few months ago, Block 20 was home to almost 200 Roma families for more than 20 years. The block was finally demolished in September last year, after a 10-year-old girl was almost crushed to death when part of the building collapsed.

Since then, the land around the site has been dotted with tents, sheds and other makeshift shelters that ‘house’ approximately 100 Roma. Other former residents have been temporarily put up by various non-governmental organisations, NGOs.

Little evidence here, then, of improved living conditions for Bulgaria’s poverty-stricken and disenfranchised Roma.

Block 20 was bulldozed midway through the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015, a European initiative to help impoverished and socially excluded Roma that began with eight countries signing the 2005 Declaration of Roma Inclusion in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, just 300 km north of Yambol.

The initiative aims to prompt governments into improving the lot of their Roma populations, particularly with regard to education, employment, health and housing. The Roma Decade project does not provide extra cash, as signatories are expected to “reallocate resources” and align “plans with funding instruments of multinational, international and bilateral donors”.

Roma Decade partner organisations include the World Bank, the Open Society Institute, the UN Development Programme and the Council of Europe.

Twelve countries, all with sizeable Roma populations who are economically and socially disadvantaged, are taking part in the Roma Decade initiative: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Spain. Slovenia has observer status.

Strategies but no action?

Each country has developed its own Decade Action Plan, which specifies targets linked to the four objectives; education, employment, health and housing.

Bulgaria could be seen as something of an award winner when it comes to writing strategies for its 800,000 Roma - who account for almost 10 per cent of the country’s close to 8m population.

Sofia’s current Decade Action Plan is simply a repetition of the 1999 Frame Programme for Roma Integration into Bulgarian Society that was upgraded and readopted in May 2010. In addition, many Bulgarian municipalities have their own strategies.

Bulgarian ministries responsible for Decade Action Plan

Implementation of Decade Action Plan divided between education, health and public works ministries

Progress coordinated by the National Council of Inter-ethnic and Demographic Matters, NCIDM

Obliged to meet quarterly, the NCIDM has met twice since 2008

There is no overall budget for Sofia’s Roma Decade Plan

A Roma Decade coordinator is yet to be appointed after Milen Milanov resigned in the autumn of 2010

Click on the links below to read, in Bulgarian, just a few of these strategy documents:

The New Frame Programme for Roma Integration into Bulgarian Society 2010-2020 lists education, health, housing, employment, discrimination, equal opportunities and culture as priorities.

When the New Frame Programme for Roma Integration into Bulgarian society 2010-2020 was introduced to the city council of Shumen, an emphasis was put on the municipalities as key policy and decision makers since Roma needs in the different parts of Bulgaria are different.

Meanwhile, Montana local council’s Frame Programme for Ethnic Minorities Integration, dated September 2010, aims at supporting the Roma participation in every aspect of Montana’s life; increasing Montana Municipality’s participation in EU programmes for Roma integration; bettering living standards and the quality of life of the ethnic minorities in Montana.

And Lyaskovec local council’s Programme for Roma Integration 2010-2015 aims to improve Roma status so that it equals other citizens’ status, alongside integrating Roma within the social, economic and cultural life of the town.

However, despite all the effort put into drawing up local and national strategies, when it comes to allocating budgets for specific targets, very little has been done. Even less has been done when it comes to implementation.    
“Bulgaria joining the Roma Decade was first and foremost an action meant to better the country’s image in the process of EU accession,” says Krasimir Kanev, head of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the Sofia-based human rights NGO.

“It is not a result of the government’s and society’s awareness of the need of Roma integration.”

Kanev underlines that during the past five years, a full halfway through the Roma Decade, nothing much has happened in Bulgaria beyond adopting papers that articulate the problems, but do not address them.

Five years ago, Bulgaria divided responsibility for implementing its Decade Action Plan among three ministries: education, health and public works. Their progress would be coordinated by the National Council of Interethnic and Demographic Matters, NCIDM, part of the Labour and Social Policy Ministry, and the cabinet’s Board for Ethnic and Demographic Matters, BEDM.

By September 2009, the BEDM had been closed down, while the NCIDM met just twice during 2008 to 2010, despite the fact it is required to meet at least four times per year.  A further indication of how low a priority the decade is, the government’s Roma Decade National Coordinator, Milen Milanov, resigned several months ago. The government is yet to appoint his successor.

Valentina Simeonova, the deputy labour minister, declined to comment on how Bulgaria’s Decade Action Plan has progressed, directing enquiries to Georgi Krastev, a deputy chair of the NCIDM, instead.

‘No aggregate budget’ for Roma

Krastev insists that since Bulgaria drew up its Roma Decade Action Plan “strategies and programmes in all priority areas have been adopted”. When asked how much of the overall budget comes from the national purse and how much is donated by others, he says only: “There is no aggregate budget”.  

To find out how much money has been spent on the Roma, including during the life of the Roma Decade initiative, you have to trawl through individual ministry budgets uploaded on the site of the finance ministry.

According to the finance ministry, €500,000 has been allocated each year since 2005 from the state budget to fund specialist literacy courses for adults, managed by the employment arm of the labour ministry. A further €250,000 has been set aside annually since 2005 for a back-to-work programme targeting the long-term unemployed.

In addition, between €250,000 and €750,000 has been allocated each year since 2005 to the Centre for the Educational Integration of Children from Ethnic Minorities, managed by the education ministry.

Bulgarian funding for Roma 2005-2010*

The education ministry has earmarked between €250,000 and €750,000 annually since 2005 for educational integration projects

The labour ministry has allocated €500,000 each year since 2005 for adult literacy courses and a further €250,000 annually for back-to-work programmes for the long-term unemployed

The public works department has put aside a total of €15 million between 2007 and 2009 for Roma housing projects

*Source: Bulgarian finance ministry

The national Programme for Bettering Roma Housing, managed by the public works ministry, received a total of €15m in funding for building works carried out between 2007 and 2009.

“When we are talking about infrastructure this amount of money is really meager,” says Deyan Kolev, head of the Amalipe Centre for Interethnic Dialogue and Tolerance. Despite the relatively low amount of funding, the housing project has yielded some results.

For example, in 2007 the municipality of Sofia built 27 low-rise apartment buildings for Roma families in the capital’s Roma quarter Hristo Botev. Part of the money was used to modernise the infrastructure of the neighbourhood and to renovate the local school.

However, in 2010 no resources were allocated to this housing initiative, despite the fact chronic shortage of decent housing and buildings such as block 20 in Yambol are being bulldozed. The housing funding was cut despite the fact that the educational integration project hugely underspent, returning €400,000 of its allocated funding to the state budget in 2009.

For a rough idea of what the government is spending on its Roma population, just add the figures above and divide by the number of years, months and Roma population and you discover the Bulgarian government has spent a grand total of approximately 0.47 euro per Roma, per month during the first five years of the Roma Decade.

This is hardly enough to address education, health standards, living conditions and employment. For comparison, an estimated €72.9m will be spent during 2011 on the collection of rubbish in the capital Sofia alone. This amounts to approximately €4.05 for each of Sofia’s 1.5 million residents, per month.

Resentment of Roma spending

Yet the perception persists within mainstream Bulgarian society that the government is actually spending money hand over fist on Roma projects. Kolev says it is enough to quickly scan the comment pages of online newspapers to see this belief is widespread.

“The most alarming part for me is that this attitude is shared not only by far right movements, but also by the average Bulgarian who is not racist,” he says, before blaming the government for this general lack of sympathy for the Roma.

“The lack of action towards Roma integration is compensated for by too much talking. Next, society tires of waiting on and not seeing any results of Roma integration, which leads to scepticism towards such a process. And finally, there is no reasonable discourse about the benefits from Roma integration without clichés and bombastic promises.”

Despite unease over the money the government is spending on its Roma population, Sofia has failed to make full use of the international funding that is available for housing, education and a raft of integration schemes.

Of the €1.4 billion in European Social Fund, ESF, money available to Bulgaria for the period 2007-2013, one per cent or €14.5 million has been earmarked for Roma integration projects. Out of that €14.5 million total, just €2.5 million has been spent on helping Roma children access quality education.

Furthermore, NGOs complain that when the government has applied for funding, it has been exceptionally slow in following up bids and ensuring funding translates into action on the ground.

In 2009, the Bulgarian government put in a bid for the rest of the ESF funding, totalling approximately €12m, for educational programmes targeting ethnic minority children and adult illiteracy. By March 2011, the education ministry had yet to announce the results.

“All together the sums are too little and not enough,” says Kolev. “As you see the rumours of hundreds of millions spent on Roma integration are highly exaggerated.”

‘It is a myth that a lot of money is allocated to Roma programmes’

Boyan Zahariev, Open Society Institute, Sofia

Boyan Zahariev, programme director at the Open Society Institute in Sofia, agrees: “It is a myth that a lot of money is allocated to Roma programmes. In fact, compared to the needs of the Roma, the number of projects aimed at solving their problems is rather small.”

Zahariev also points out that the government has brought other, key initiatives, including the state-commissioned housing programme that involved assistance from foreign economists and architects, to an end.

While little has been spent on Roma Decade projects, observers say it is nonetheless disturbing that there has been no tangible difference in the economic and social status of Bulgaria’s Roma community.

On 8 April, 2010, International Roma Day, the Bulgarian government reported on the work it had completed during the first five years of the Roma Decade on a round-table organised by the World Bank, Open Society Institute and the Labour and Social Policy Ministry. They gave a very positive account of their activities, raising eyebrows among some observers.

“According to the representatives of the ministries responsible for the implementation of the Roma Decade objectives, hundreds of thousands of kilometres of asphalt, water conduits and sewers have been laid down in Roma quarters, tens of thousands of unemployed Roma have been trained and so on,” says Rumyan Sechkov, chair of Start for Alternative Civic Initiatives, a campaign group, who was a moderator of the conference.

By contrast, Sechkov notes all NGOs treated the government’s five year report with considerable scepticism.

“It is a mistake [to say] that there is nothing happening. There are renovated Roma quarters, five times more Roma have completed higher education than in 1989, but all this is not the result of long-term, purposeful, state-funded policy,” he says.

Sechkov believes that close scrutiny of improvements made in the last 15-20 years are the result of piecemeal funding and programmes outside government provision. He notes these models, such as the achievements of particularly efficient local leaders for example, are rarely turned into national policies. “These are all mosaic interventions that depend on the human factor,” he says.

Roma Decade Plan: Key Targets*

Education: Attendance of all Roma children at mainstream kindergartens and schools, truancy and drop-out prevention, ensuring Roma children are not placed in special needs schools unless appropriate, encouraging parent participation and continuing education for adults.

Health: Ensuring more Roma have health insurance, know their rights to health treatment as insured citizens, access to health education relevant to age group and health workers in Roma neighbourhoods, vaccinating more children, prevention of HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis, Tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, sexual health education and reducing child mortality rates.

Employment: Educational, qualification and pre-qualification programmes for unemployed Roma, employment mediators, increasing the level of social abilities amongst young Roma, building up a mechanism for prevention from discrimination of the labour market

Housing: Bettering the infrastructure of quarters with dense Roma population, renovating legal Roma buildings, constructing new legal housing for Roma, supporting Roma families to renovate their homes, informational campaigns for sustaining good living conditions

*Source: Bulgarian Cabinet Council

Kolev shares this view. He says only fragmented, poorly coordinated steps toward integration have been taken so far, adding that many effective NGO initiatives were not applied nationally simply because the individual NGOs lacked capacity to do so. He stresses the role of NGOs in functioning democracies is simply to test policies and support the government.

Returning to Georgi Krastev of the National Council of Interethnic and Demographic Matters, he argues that the government has not failed to secure as much funding as possible from the ESF and other international funding sources for its Roma population, insisting it has ‘done everything we can to ensure more money… towards Roma integration”.

While acknowledging the vital support role played by NGOs, particularly regarding pilot education and health projects, Krastev also stresses they have limited capacity and says results are inconsistent.

“NGO participation is crucial to innovative practice… [but] the challenge is to determine how the national institutions and the non-profit organisations can work together under the leadership of the state’s institutions, because the state is responsible in the eyes of society,” he says.

Meanwhile, Georgi Angelov, senior economist at the Open Society in Sofia, believes that any gains made in recent years came “before the economic crisis, but none of them were because of the decade”.

In the years of economic stability and increasing foreign investments, he says, new jobs were created so the labour market turned to the Roma to expand its workforce. As the economic crisis hit, unemployment soared and unskilled, manual workers were the first to lose their jobs.

“Because they [Roma] lack education [and skills] it is harder for them to find new occupations,” Angelov says.

Economic benefits of integration

In 2006, he worked on an Open Society report on the potential benefits Roma integration would bring Bulgarian society as a whole. It estimates the cost benefit to Bulgaria at between €7 and €15 billion. A World Bank report published in 2010 focused on the benefits of educating Roma so they can secure work, estimating Bulgaria would be €526 million better off.
Angelov says aside from greater employment, production and wealth, Bulgaria would also be spending less on social services and benefits. He stresses that once the economic position of the Roma improves, their health and living conditions will recover and criminality rates will drop.

Not only that, Zahariev says that societies with fewer contrasts between rich and poor people tend to enjoy better quality of life. “It will be safer, cohesive and better developed economically,” he says.

Youngsters outside Block 20; will it take another 20 years to lift

Roma children out of poverty? (Photo: Nadezhda Chipeva)

Others, including Kanev, believe it is simply immoral for the prosperous and free to live next to a huge number of people facing discrimination and living in abject poverty.

When asked what needs to be done, most experts point to the 1999 Programme for Roma Integration, which is repeated in the 2005 Decade Action Plan and again in the renewed 2010 programme.

Everyone knows what the problems are and how they should be addressed but integration cannot happen by itself. Kolev says for that to happen “financial, institutional and administrative security needs to be provided.”

By this he means that regardless of how unpopular spending on Roma may be among the voters, the Bulgarian government must provide long-term Roma integration policies backed up by steady funding and administrative support.

Until that happens, countless other Block 20s will be left to rot until local councils are forced to bulldoze them. It took two decades to get rid of Block 20; it looks like it might take another 20 years to properly put into practice the process of integrating the Roma.

Fellow Bio


Nikoleta Popkostadinova

Nikoleta Popkostadinova from Sofia, Bulgaria, is a freelance journalist specializing in social affairs.  She has worked as a reporter for the Bulgarian weekly Capital and Transitions Online, and as an editor for the monthly magazine Vice


Roma Decade

Twelve countries, including several Balkan states, have signed up to the European Roma Decade 2005-2015 initiative. Halfway through the decade, has any real progress been made?

Meet the Journalists


Nikoleta Popkostadinova

Nikoleta Popkostadinova from Sofia, Bulgaria, is a freelance journalist specializing in social affairs.  She has worked as a reporter for the Bulgarian weekly Capital and Transitions Online, and as an editor for the monthly magazine Vice


Barbara Matejcic

Barbara Matejcic from Zagreb, Croatia, is a freelance journalist specialising in social issues

/en/file/show/Adrian Mogos.jpg

Adrian Mogos

Adrian Mogoș is a freelancer and a member of the Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism and International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.


Mircea Dan Opris

Mircea Dan Opris is a Romanian investigative reporter and photographer for the national daily newspaper Jurnalul National

Alumni Stories

14 Dec 2011 / 11:17

Roma Funds Squandered in Romania

Adrian Mogoş

As Brussels pressures Bucharest to improve living conditions for its Roma population, thousands of euros paid by the EU and Romanian government to do just that appears to have been wasted on inflated salaries and exorbitant rents and expenses, BIRN can reveal.

08 Aug 2011 / 12:12

All Eyes on EU’s Roma Framework

Nikoleta Popkostadinova

In the wake of last year’s expulsions from France, the EU’s Roma framework has promised to take a tougher line on monitoring member states’ efforts to integrate marginalised minorities. Not everyone is convinced.

11 Jul 2011 / 14:34

EU Commissioner: Roma Exclusion ‘Getting Worse’

Compiled by Nikoleta Popkostadinova

Living conditions for Europe’s Roma are worsening and all European states, including western ones, are responsible for changing that, says László Andor, the EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion.

08 Jul 2011 / 13:38

Little to Celebrate Halfway through Europe’s ‘Roma Decade’

Nikoleta Popkostadinova

Despite high expectations, the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 initiative is yet to make its mark and significantly improve the lot of Roma communities, say activists and campaigners.

19 Apr 2011 / 09:56

French Payouts Tempt More Roma Immigrants

Adrian Mogos

The village of Berini lies 20 km south of the city of Timişoara in western Romania. The first historical record of the village, whose name means lamb in English, dates back to the 14th century.

18 Apr 2011 / 11:11

‘Roma Decade’ Passes Bulgarian Roma By

Nikoleta Popkostadinova

Nobody ever bothered building access roads to Block 20, an infamous housing estate in the south-eastern Bulgarian town of Yambol. Asphalt, electricity, running water and sewage pipes were abstract concepts for residents. Even windows were a rare luxury.