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Bulgarian Roma snub new EU plan for gypsy integration

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(SOFIA) - Representatives of Bulgaria's 700,000-strong Roma community snubbed on Tuesday a new EU plan to improve their economic and social status within the bloc, citing poor results in similar schemes so far.

European Union states agreed last month to develop Roma inclusion strategies this year to improve the lot of the 27-member bloc's 12 million Roma, concentrating on education, jobs, health care and housing.

But at a Roma forum here Tuesday, organised by the EU, Roma activists voiced scepticism, raising huge slogans in the audience that read: "Stop funding Roma exclusion" and "Don't fuck with the 12,000,000 Roma."

Roma organisations told AFP their scepticism stemmed from the lack of visible results from a number of previous government strategies, framework programmes and action plans for Roma integration.

Red-tape and lagging payments on projects also discouraged many Roma organisations from applying for EU money to fund their projects.

"The continuing exclusion of the Roma from the labour market and wider society is not an option. It is not acceptable," the EU's employment, social affairs and inclusion commissioner Laszlo Andor told the forum Tuesday.

But he admitted: "So far much has been planned, a few projects have been successful in some member states but not much has changed on the ground and this needs to improve."

He also highlighted the role of Roma leaders in fostering integration and overcoming anti-Roma stereotypes.

Bulgaria has the largest percentage of Roma in Europe, at 10.3 percent of its 7.6-million population, Council of Europe data shows.

But the community is widely discriminated against and is often segregated in ghettos with little access to good education, quality healthcare and decent jobs.

Merely touching upon the issue of Roma migration and crime, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov sparked booing from the audience at the forum Tuesday and shouts of "We are not criminals".

A dozen Roma activists waved red cards at Tsvetanov, who also chairs the government's cooperation council on ethnic and integration issues, and walked out during his address.

"This is bullshit! It does not become such a high-level government official to uphold stereotypes," Deyan Kolev, chairman of the Amalipe centre for interethnic dialogue and tolerance, a Roma organisation that focuses on school desegregation, told AFP.

In mid-2010, thousands of illegal Roma migrants from Bulgaria and Romania were expelled from France, sparking an EU-wide debate on the fate of Europe's largest minority.

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