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Monday, July 10, 2006 

EU Deputies Halt Demolition of Sofia's Roma Quarter

European pressure has bought about a reprieve for a ruinous Roma ghetto in Sofia, which the local authorities planned to demolish.

After four European parliamentarians from the European Free Alliance sent an angry letter to the Bulgarian government, the city mayor postponed the demolition of about 60 illegal homes in Batalova Vodenitsa, a slum-like quarter on the outskirts of the city that is home to around 200 Roma.

The city authorities had planned to go ahead with the demolition on June 30, after getting the go-ahead from the country's Supreme Administrative Court.

While the city authorities, the government and human rights organisations argue over the best solution to the problem, experts say the situation has highlighted obvious discrepancies between the local and state policy on this sensitive issue.

The conflict over the Roma in Sofia erupted at a delicate moment - days before Bulgaria was due to take over the presidency of an initiative called "The Decade of Roma Inclusion".

The campaign aims to unite eight countries from Central and Eastern Europe behind a drive to improve housing, education, employment and healthcare for this marginalised and disenfranchised minority.

The row about the fate of Batalova Vodenitsa is not the first over the city's Roma. Last year, the Sofia authorities destroyed another Roma quarter on the grounds that the more than 20 homes in it, home to about 150 Roma, were also illegal.

The housing problem for the Roma in Sofia is typical of the problems they face all over the country.

The communist regime ended the Roma's traditional peripatetic lifestyle, obliging them to settle down, as the price of obtaining personal documents. But once they did, most ended up in segregated and isolated ghettos.

Since then the situation has remained more or less the same.
Moreover, the country's economic and political transition has widened the gap. The Roma minority is among those social groups that have suffered most from recent economic instability, unemployment and poverty. Very few have found stable and secure lifestyles.

Migrating within the country in search of better job opportunities, they have increasingly tended to settle on municipal property without permission, building unlicensed, mostly temporary, constructions.

The latest attempt to remove one of these illegally built settlements on municipal property was launched by Sofia's regional mayor, Eva Seizova.

When she first came up with the idea to remove the Batalova Vodenitsa slums last Septmeber, 23 residents of the ghetto went to court to challenge the plan. But the Sofia City Court and then the Supreme Administrative Court ruled in her favour.

It was only the EU parliamentarians' stance that made Sofia's city mayor, Boyko Borisov, pause for thought. Backing down in the face of the protest, he ordered a halt to the operation until the housing problem of those affected is solved.

Many experts blame a discrepancy between the policies of the local and state authorities for the muddle.

Margarita Ilieva, from the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the Sofia-based human-rights organisation that took the case to the European court for human rights in Strasbourg, said the city policy was contradicting official state policy on Roma integration.

She said that the government's own programme of 1999 for the integration of Roma agreed as far as possible to legalise the illegal dwellings was preferable to demolitions and evictions. After that infrastructure can be built.

However, Georgi Krastev, of the Roma integration department, of the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Demographic Issues, believes differently. He said many of the current Roma dwellings needed to be destroyed, mainly as they do not meet health and safety standards.

The Helsinki Committee also criticises the city for what it describes as an arbitrary policy on land seizures.

Ilieva says the current law on municipality property, on which the eviction order was based, constitutes an attack on the basic rights of all citizens to a home.

"The provision in the law that allows local authorities to remove without compensation any citizen who lives illegally on municipality property, even when this is their only home, contradicts the European Convention on Human Rights," she said.

It violates article 8 of the convention, which stipulate s as human right the right of home and peaceful family life.

Eva Seizova disagrees. Describing the letter of the four European parliamentarians as "interference", she quoted the country's constitution, which stipulates that no one individual's rights should violate another individual's rights.

"This principle has now been violated," she said. "I'm receiving a great amount of complaints from the thousands of other citizens who live near the ghetto and who have been tortured by those in the ghetto."

The regional mayor added bitterly that while attempts to remove a Roma slum had provoked uproar, no one paid similar attention when ordinary Bulgarians were evicted from their homes.

Some analysts say it is clear that national initiatives on Roma have often been launched without any guidance as to how they should be applied at local level.

"The solution of this problem will take a lot of time and will have high financial and social price," said Boyan Zahariev, of the Open Society Institute in Sofia.

In May, Bulgaria's council of ministers moved to allocate around ten million leva (around 5 million euro) to re-house 80,000 Roma families within the next ten years.

Until that project is completed, the local authorities may well face similar arguments to the one over Batalova Vodenitsa.

Source: Sofia News Agency

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