Saturday, 1 June 2013

Who are Bulgaria's Roma?

In recent months there has been much debate and controversy surrounding the predicted Romanian and Bulgarian influx. Fuelled by right wing politicians and newspapers, concern has been mounting over the strain this will have upon a supposedly overburdened Britain. It is expected that many of these migrants will be from Bulgaria’s Roma community and the right have arguably used this to their benefit - inflaming and encouraging panic and debates about a supposed Gypsy invasion. This has not gone unnoticed by Bulgarian President, Rosen Plevneliev, who recently stated that he “would not be surprised if populist politicians started to label them with stars as they did to the Jews during World War II…the European Union will not suffer greatly because of the Roma, but because of those who are afraid of them”. So who are Bulgaria’s Roma – a group to be feared or a group desperately in need of equality?

According to the 2011 Census, there are around 325,000 Roma living in Bulgaria. This makes them Bulgaria’s third biggest ethnic minority – around 5% of the total population. Nonetheless, these figures have been disputed and it has been argued that the Roma population is much larger (700,000 to 900,000). Due to the stigma attached to their ethnicity, Roma are often reluctant to reveal their ethnic group, and instead identify as Bulgarian or Turkish etc. 

The exact origins of the Romani people are unknown but genetic and linguistic research suggests that their roots lie in Northern India. It is thought the Roma fled during the invasion of Mahmud of Ghazni and moved west through the Byzantine Empire, arriving in Bulgaria around the 12th century. A second wave of Roma migration began under Ottoman rule in the 14th century. Within the Ottoman Empire, Roma held a relatively higher position than Roma in other parts of Europe who were subjected to slavery. This led many Roma to seek refuge within the Ottoman Empire, with many settling in Bulgaria. A third wave of Roma migration to Bulgaria, known as the great Kelderara invasion, came after the abolition of slavery in Wallachia (a region of Romania) and Moldova.

Though Bulgaria’s Roma share a common ethnicity, history and culture, there is not one single Roma ethnic identity. Rather, there are many Roma subgroups living within Bulgaria:

  • ·   Миллет/ Millet: Descendants of the Roma who settled in Bulgaria during the Ottoman Empire who mainly identify as, and speak, Turkish.

  • Рудари/ Miners: Settled in Bulgaria during the great Kelderara invasion and speak the   Vlax Romani dialect.
  • Калдараши/ Kalderash: Known as ‘Serbian Gypsies’ who also settled in Bulgaria after the great Kelderara invasion. Speakers of Kalderash Romani which is a Vlax dialect. 
  • Йерлии / Yerlii: Descendants of the first wave of Roma migrants to Bulgaria and are split into two groups.

1.       Хорахане рома/ Xoraxane Roma: Known as ‘Turkish Gypsies’ and are predominantly Muslim. They are speakers of Romani and Turkish.

2.       Дасикане рома/ Daskane Roma: Known as ‘Bulgarian Gypsies’ and are predominantly Orthodox Christians. They are speakers of Romani and Bulgarian.

Since their arrival in Europe the Roma have been subjected to high levels of persecution but it arguably peaked during World War II. Nazi Germany considered the Roma as an unclean and primitive ethnic group and they were subjected to sterilization and prohibited from marrying outside of the Roma community. An estimated 500,000 Roma were exterminated in Nazi concentration camps, mainly deported from Nazi conquered countries. Though Bulgaria had a period of alliance with Nazi Germany, the situation for Bulgaria’s Roma during WWII was much different to that of the rest of Europe. Nazi Germany demanded that Bulgaria deport its Jewish and Roma population to Nazi concentration camps. Tsar Boris III, then King of Bulgaria, refused, thus saving the lives of Bulgaria’s Roma and Jewish communities. 

Nonetheless, Bulgaria’s Roma still suffer from extreme discrimination, prejudice and inequality which have a detrimental effect on their education, employment, living conditions and health.

  • 11.8% of Bulgaria’s Roma are illiterate, compared to just 1.5% of the wider               population.
  • 23.2% of Roma children do not attend school, compared to just 5.6% of the wider population.
  • The majority of Roma children are educated in segregated Roma schools or at Special Educational Needs schools despite the fact very few have an actual disability.


  • 59% of Bulgaria’s Roma are unemployed.
  • Roma workers earn 31% less than the wider population of Bulgaria.
  • 87% of Bulgaria’s Roma are living under the poverty line.

Living Conditions:

  • Bulgaria’s Roma are spatially segregated with many living in Roma ghettos.
  • Much of the housing accommodating Roma has been built illegally and seldom provides  adequate living conditions. Many families are living without adequate sanitation, electricity, or clean drinking water.
  • Bulgaria’s Roma are subjected to frequent evictions.
  • Very few are able to access public services.

  • Only 1% of Bulgaria’s Roma live to the age of 70.
  • Infant mortality is 2 times higher than that of the wider population.
  • Malnutrition is a common problem within the Roma community.
  • Bulgaria’s Roma are hit with high rates of diseases, such as, Tuberculosis, Hepatitis and HIV. 
     These inequalities are undeniably unacceptable, and are mimicked across Europe. Discrimination against the Roma is widespread and has historically remained unchallenged. It is easy for us to sit back and forget the suffering of other people. Often we will watch the news and witness the most awful of scenes – war zones, famines, disease, murder – it is though we have become somewhat desensitised to it and these images simply slip from our minds. These scenes, stories and images of suffering seem so remote to us in a country in which we take our rights for granted, and while we may feel great sympathy for these people it is though we feel we can’t change their situation. 

Amnesty International have recently launched a campaign – ‘Human Rights Here, Roma Rights Now’ – which calls on the EU “to step in to end the discrimination the Roma face on a daily basis”. This petition gives us the opportunity to challenge inequality and discrimination against Roma in EU countries. Indeed, there are no guarantees that a campaign or petition will end the persecution of the Roma, but it is through consensus and collective action that improvement to the situation of the Roma might occur. One minute of your time could potentially be enough to convince the EU to take action. This Gypsy Roma and Traveller History month, I urge you to give your support, sign your name and stand up against inequality.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you. I want to read this a few more times along with the rest of your blog.

    I'm currently in the Ukraine and, for the first time, am hearing the Roma (some say "gypsies" - I want to learn the correct term which I think, think is Roma...) enter into daily conversations.

    Like at the hospital, I volunteer to just rock out with some babies who were abandoned (the state just provides their basic basic needs and not always even that) and love on 'em. Anyways, another volunteer was explaining that sometimes other nursing students had come in - but were sometimes prejudiced against the Romany babies. That blew my mind. If nurses can be prejudiced about Romany babies -- it can only get worse from there. Now I can see I am highly unaware and uneducated about this. Time to do some learning and step away from ignorance.