When we look at Africa, Asia and the Middle East, it seems very easy for us to condemn regimes and speak up against the abuse of human rights, yet it appears somewhat difficult for Europeans to even recognise the great violations of human rights taking place on their own home turf. Perhaps one of Europe's biggest failures is the marginalisation of one of their largest ethnic minorities – the Roma. There are around 10 million Romani people living in Europe, the majority of whom are living in poverty without adequate access to education, accommodation or health care.
One of the biggest Roma populations can be found in Bulgaria, where around 10% of the population are Roma. I have recently returned from Bulgaria after staying with family in Plovdiv and Varna, experiencing life in some of the largest Roma neighbourhoods in Europe. While I have always been aware of the inequalities faced by the Roma across Europe, I perhaps hadn't appreciated the extent of these inequalities until experiencing it first hand. In the UK, a supposedly equal and fair society, many have been shocked by the treatment of the Romany and Irish Traveller communities, particularly recently during the destruction of Dale Farm. Yet perhaps what is more shocking is that compared to the situation for Europe's Roma, the traveller communities of the UK are in a relatively enviable position.
My travels first took me to the largest Roma district in Bulgaria – Stolipinovo. Stolipinovo is home to around 45,000 Roma, with the majority of the population (around 90%) identifying as Horahane Roma – that is, Muslim Roma, while the remaining population, like my own family, are Daskane Roma – that is, Bulgarian Roma who practice Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Unemployment rates are as high as 90% in Stolipinovo, and while most of the population are housed in blocks of flats there is restricted access to amenities such as water and electricity, inadequate sewage systems, and little access to health care and education.
I was in awe of the vast size of Stolipinovo's population. Could one imagine a Gypsy and Traveller site as large as Stolipinovo in the UK? There was almost something quaint about Stolipinovo – in the face of great social exclusion, a neighbourhood of 45,000 Roma, living in third world conditions in a supposedly developed country, could come together and make a neighbourhood with around the same population as Ayr, feel like a village. Despite being a district made up of two separate groups of Roma, the residents of Stolipinovo seemed able to live peacefully alongside each other in spite of their religious and ethnic differences. It made me wonder about the situation in the UK, where Romany and Irish Traveller communities often have a lack of solidarity, where sites, and even towns, are mainly dominated by either/or.
There is a tendency amongst Britain's Gypsy and Traveller communities to question each other's worthiness of the Gypsy/Traveller title. Often poshrat's (that is, a 'half blood') will be told that they are not tatcho (true) gypsies, Irish Travellers will be blamed by the Romany community for the bad reputation they receive, housed Gypsies and Travellers will be viewed as assimilating to the gorjer (non-Gypsy) way of life, and the recent wave of Roma immigrants to the UK are seen as an entirely separate ethnicity altogether. While Stolipinovo successfully accommodates two separate groups of Roma people, these issues of solidarity are present within Bulgaria as well. The Kalderaš (another of Bulgaria's Roma communities) are especially looked down upon by other groups of Roma and are blamed for the bad reputation of the Romani people and see as unworthy of the Roma title. It seems instead of blaming the society that socially excludes them, Romani people, both in Europe and the UK, blame each other.
I spent the majority of my time in Bulgaria in the city of Varna, where my family live in the Roma neighbourhood of Maksuda. Varna is home to 'Golden Sands' – a purpose built and popular holiday resort, yet hidden away just miles from Varna's city centre, is a ghetto they don't want the tourists to see. I was never under the impression that Maksuda would be a desirable place to live, but I was shocked. While Stolipinovo wasn't the most aesthetically pleasing neighbourhood, the flat blocks somewhat disguised the reality that Maksuda could not hide. Maksuda, of course, was characterised by these same communist era flat blocks seen in Stolipinovo, but it also seemed dominated by poorly built housing and shacks. Maksuda appeared to me as a victim of Bulgaria's harsh communist rule.
During the communist regime (1946 – 1990), Bulgaria's Roma suffered at the hands of an intolerant and oppressive state. There was an attempt to forcibly assimilate the Roma which was to be achieved through forbidding nomadism and the Romani language. What is more, self-employment was also banned which led to the loss of traditional Roma occupations, and Roma people were forced to settle in neighbourhoods dominated by poorly built flat blocks.
Even in a post-communist Bulgaria, little money has been invested into improving conditions in the communist built Roma districts. As a result of this, and due to the fast rising Roma population, the majority of the housing found today in Roma neighbourhoods, such as Maksuda, has been built illegally. This has led to a situation where the conditions in Roma neighbourhood's have worsened, and instead of investing in adequate accommodation for the growing Roma population, the Bulgarian government has instead left families to live without water, electricity and sewage systems. Despite this housing crisis, the illegally built houses of Maksuda have begun to be demolished, with little regard for the fact that there is no alternative accommodation for the evicted families, thus I shouldn't have been surprised to see the displaced Roma families of Maksuda living in shacks.
One would think that a community with so little would be an unpleasant place to live, yet once I looked past the poverty, the mountains of waste, and the shocking standards of housing and sanitation, I found a community with great solidarity. I was apprehensive to stay in Maksuda as I was fearful of not being accepted. How could a community that suffered so much accept me - a relatively rich and fortunate (compared to them), white British teenager? However, from the moment I arrived I had people from all over Maksuda wanting to meet me. While I was only aware of my great grandmother and several aunties and uncles, suddenly everyone in Maksuda was somehow related to me. In the UK, I have never been accepted fully into the Romanichal (English Gypsy) community, despite being from a Romanichal family I am always known as the one who is half Bulgarian Roma and not quite considered part of the 'team', yet in Maksuda no one was calling me a gorjer, no one was questioning my ethnicity, no one was judging my surname or my lifestyle – at last I felt accepted.
It would be wrong to suggest that Maksuda is without problems. Like most Roma neighbourhoods in Bulgaria, there is a massive problem with drugs and prostitution amongst Varna's Roma population. Prostitution amongst the Roma community is rife. One only needs to take a drive along any busy Bulgarian highway, or visit the city stations, to see Roma girls lined up looking for punters. It was perhaps the hardest thing I had to come to terms with, as it is something that is unheard of in the Romany community in the UK. The reputation of a British Romany girl would be tarnished if she were to sleep with a man out of wedlock, thus for a Romany girl to be involved in prostitution would simply not happen. What is heartbreaking is that these Roma girls in Bulgaria have no other choice but to sell their bodies, as it is there only means of escaping absolute poverty. Surely this shouldn’t be happening in a developed country like Bulgaria?
If extreme poverty and third world living conditions were not already enough to contend with, there is an escalating anti-Roma sentiment within Bulgaria. There is a feeling amongst a lot of Bulgarian's that the Roma people are giving privileges that are denied to the average Bulgarian citizen. It is believed the Roma do not pay tax or utility bills, that Roma organised crime rings are overlooked by the police, and there are fears of the rate of expansion of the Roma population. During a previous visit to Sofia in September 2011, I was witness to the biggest anti Roma demonstrations seen in Bulgaria for many years. Hundreds of people marched, armed with weapons, towards Roma neighbourhoods across Bulgaria. Maksuda itself fell victim to these demonstrations, with police struggling to hold back crowds of protesters who were intent on cleansing the neighbourhood. Indeed, many protesters did evade the police and were reported to have vandalised property and stoned the residents of Maksuda.
After witnessing first hand the hardship of Bulgaria's Roma, I have realised how fortunate the UK's Gypsy and Traveller communities are. Of course, we should never stop fighting for total equality as the situation in the UK remains unfair, unequal, and unacceptable, yet compared to the situation in Bulgaria I realise that it could be much worse. I find it difficult to know that my family are living in such poor conditions, and while I can provide, to some extent, financial security for my family, I am all too aware that they are living in a country that is on the brink of an explosion of nationalist hate. How much longer can Europe ignore the hardship of their biggest ethnic minority? It's time people demanded answers and time for the Romani communities across Europe to stand together and fight for the equality that we all deserve.