There are more Roma in Bulgaria than any other EU nation. Some 10 percent of the population belong to the minority group, and despite receiving millions for their integration Roma remain marginalized.
Roma live an average of 10 fewer years than other Bulgarians, according to official statistics. Cancer among Roma is more likely to end fatally, and tuberculosis in Roma neighborhoods is between two and five times more common than the rest of the country. Child mortality rates are almost three times higher.
In 2005, the European Union provided several million euros in funding for programs devoted to the early diagnosis of tuberculosis and other diseases among Bulgaria's lower classes. Some 1.85 million euros ($2.4 million) in EU funds also paid for three mobile laboratories and three ultrasound machines, and another 800,000 euros was earmarked for expert consulting and educational projects.
Sweeping away unemployment
The Bulgarian Health Ministry pledged to support the health projects with 375,000 euros of its own but as the projects enter their final month it has provided just 35,000 euros, according to Dessislava Simeonova of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. The projects have not conducted a single mammogram for the early detection of breast cancer and of the 38,640 exams for the prevention of several diseases only 3,888 - about 10 percent - have taken place.
Measures for the social integration of Roma into the labor market, education and construction have suffered similar failures. In 2009, the country started its first national education program for Roma with the modest goal of teaching 1,200 to read and write and learn a profession. However, some questioned the actual benefit of the "welfare to work" program, which cost 27.5 million euros in state funding. The "profession" the welfare recipients learned was most commonly street sweeper, which led to the program being nicknamed the "broom program."
Also in 2009, a national program to improve living conditions in Roma neighborhoods was practically stopped, despite originally trying to focus on long-term improvements. Of the 750 million euros pledged to build housing only 20 million euros was provided, and the 200 apartments built did little to alleviate the housing problems. Even six years after Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, the situation in many Roma neighborhoods remains bleak.
Bleak accurately describes the city of Vetren, where Roma are isolated on the outskirts of the city. Calling the district a residential area would be an exaggeration. The buildings are in need of repairs and are not connected to a sewage system. There is barely any warm water or electricity. A third of the wooden structures, in which at least 300 people live, have been illegally built and do not have electricity.
"We are forced to steal electricity from our neighbors," one woman said while pointing to the cable over her head. Of a total of 1,000 electricity customers, about 200 pay. The entire neighborhood does not have a garbage can and trash piles up.
But Vetren could be any number of places where Roma are pushed to the edges of Bulgarian society, according to sociologist Alexey Pamporov. Some 12 percent of Roma households do not have running water, 19 percent are not connected to sewage systems and 50 percent live in an apartment without a bathroom, according to 2011 statistics. Some 40 percent of Roma in the country live below the poverty line. Not all of the shocking number can be tied back to the economic crisis.
"Bulgaria is a world champion in enacting ambitious strategies without providing the necessary financing for them," said Bojan Zahariev of the Open Society Institute in the capital, Sofia.
Some 7 million euros were earmarked to be spent on low-income housing by 2014, which is less than 1 percent of what is needed, Zahariev said.
Forced into ghettos
It's no wonder that 83 percent of Bulgarian Roma said they would like to move abroad in a bid to improve their lives. Poor people in Bulgaria, and especially Roma, have become "social nomads," said Ivaylo Ditchev, a cultural anthropologist.
Trajko Panov, an expert for minority issues in the Septemvri communal government, shared that view.
"Some leave the city, others come back and that is the way it goes every year from April until late in the autumn," Panov said, adding that many people move with harvests from Greece in April to Italy in May, then on to Spain.
And what has happened to the EU funding that was supposed to improve integration of Roma minorities? Within the first five years after its accession to the EU, Bulgaria supplied just 50 million euros of the funds provided.
"For two centuries, European states have pushed for social homogeneity, but Bulgaria has always refused to integrate problem groups," Ditchev said. "Despite contradictory announcements, these people are put into ghettos just as much as before."