Roma Evictions and Demolition of Roma Houses: A Sustainable Solution for Roma Integration or a Problem of Roma Discrimination in Bulgaria?

Analysis of the legislation regulating the demolition of illegal housing and its implementation in Bulgaria to identify its compliance with the EU legislation on protection from discrimination on grounds of ethnic origin

Sofia, March 2017
Daniela Mihailova
Alexander Kachamov

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Executive Summary

The report presents the results of  research about the legislative framework and administrative practices for demolition of illegal housing in Bulgaria, with a particular focus on segregated Roma neighbourhoods. The aim is to examine the government’s compliance with the adopted national and international norms and principles concerning the protection from discrimination. The research was commissioned by the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels and conducted by experts from the Equal Opportunities Initiative Association and Access to Information Programme from January to May 2016 .

The methodology involved research into the legal aspects of illegal constructions, and the international and European legal instruments for protection of discrimination adopted by Bulgaria. Furthermore, it looked into the practices of the demolition of illegal housing by screening the Public registry of the Directorate for National Construction Control (DNCC), launching a survey targeting all municipalities in Bulgaria to uncover all illegal housing and demolition orders as well as using fieldwork and case studies.

Based on this, the report draws conclusions about five main aspects:
(1)    The practices of demolition of the sole residences of Roma families provide evidence for discrimination on the grounds of ethnic origin and for the violation of the rights of the affected parties:
•    The issuing and enforcement of demolition orders concerning illegal housing affects adversely and disproportionately mainly Roma families. This is in violation of the Race Equality Directive of the Council of the European Union (Directive 2000/43) with respect to “indirect discrimination” on the grounds of ethnic origin.
•    Evidence for that are the findings of the research about the significant percentage of Roma sole residences affected by demolition orders. More concretely, 97% or 500 out of the 514 demolition orders for residential housing issued between 2010 and 2012 by the DNCC concern Roma people’s sole residences; according to the data gathered from 61% of all municipalities in Bulgaria, from 2012 to the present, 89% or 399 out of the 444 demolition orders for residential housing issued by local administrations concern once again Roma people’s sole residences.
•    The administrative practices applied in demolishing Roma families’ sole residences are in violation of the international legal instruments for the protection from discrimination adopted by Bulgaria. There was no discussion with the affected families about the possible alternatives prior to the demolition of their houses nor were they offered adequate alternative accommodation. In fact they were left homeless – without the opportunity to register at a new permanent address. This hinders the issuing of new identity documents and, consequently, their access to basic rights and services.

(2)    There is no legal framework for the protection of the affected parties when their fundamental rights to adequate accommodation have been violated, nor is there an opportunity for them to go to court if their rights have been violated.

(3)    There is a serious increase in anti-Roma sentiments and actions, defined by the European Commission as “anti-Gypsyism” or “anti-Romanipé”. This often becomes a strong impetus for local authorities to initiate demolition proceedings in Roma neighbourhoods. In many of the examined cases the practice of evicting Roma families intensifies around local election time based on pressure from anti-Roma protests and demands by citizens and political formations, who hold negative views about the Roma. A major obstacle to resolving this problem is the lack of consistent communication on the part of national and local authorities on the objectives of the National Roma Integration Strategy and the benefit of its implementation. There is also a lack of legal sanctions for such anti-Roma feelings and actions under the Protection Against Discrimination Act.

(4)    There are insufficient implementation policies aimed at fulfilling the objectives to improve the Roma housing situation, as laid down by the National Roma Integration Strategy of the Republic of Bulgaria (NRISRB). Firstly of all, this is due to the lack of clear responsibilities and outcome indicators, concerning the objective for the necessary legislative amendments with regards to housing. Secondly, it is because of insufficient financing of the NRISRB and lack of support  to capacitate the municipalities to develop and implement adequate measures and investments, using an integrated approach  in order to resolve the Roma housing problems.

(5)    Severe measures such as evictions and demolitions of housing in isolated neighbourhoods not only  prevent authorities from  finding a sustainable solution to the problems with the Roma housing situation, but they also exacerbate it. When an opportunity for alternative accommodation is not provided, the affected families remain in the same segregated neighbourhoods, living with relatives, and later on building new illegal housing. At the same time, the demolition of Roma houses increases the interethnic tension not only on a local, but also on a national level, which has resulted in anti-Roma sentiments among the majority of the population and a complete lack of trust in institutions among the Roma. When there is a lack of clear support and communication from the central authorities, responsible for Roma integration, the negative sentiments are exacerbated by the predominantly negative media coverage. What is more, the public space is overshadowed by the anti-Roma voice of the nationalist parties and groups, which subsequently shapes the public opinion.

In order to overcome this situation, the report provides the following recommendations:
(1)    Legislative amendment in the foreseeable future in two directions: 1/ of the legal framework concerning the legalisation of structurally stable buildings for residential use, which constitute people’s only homes, and differentiation of the rules for dealing with illegally constructed buildings for residential and non-residential use and 2/ incorporate in the domestic legislation the international framework of protection of citizens in cases of compulsory demolitions and/or evictions from their only homes.

(2)    Limit the problem by:
a)    adopting a moratorium over the enforcement of the already issued orders to demolish sole residences, until the proposed legislative amendments, regarding the opportunities for legalization and the legal framework of protection of the victims, have been developed; and
b)    having a stricter control and more proactive actions of municipalities in order to prevent any new illegal constructions in segregated neighbourhoods; this could be achieved in cooperation with NGOs with a view to ensuring Roma community awareness and involvement.

(3)    Mid-term assessment of the progress of the NRISRB (2015-2020), and especially its policy priority of improving housing conditions, which should be carried out no later than the beginning of 2018 in consultation with Roma and pro-Roma non-governmental organisations. The assessment should review the mid-term outcomes with respect to the set of objectives towards the desired results.  Based on that the national and local strategies and action plans should be updated, including through adequate provision of additional financing and support for their implementation.

(4)    Develop an adequate National Communication Strategy for changing the negative stereotypes towards the Roma, with a detailed action plan for each of the priority policy areas of the NRIS. This should also include a specific housing policy equipped with financial resources for its implementation and clear mid-term and long-term indicators to measure progress towards success.

(5)    Adopt measures to enforce the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights issued against Bulgaria, concerning the protection of citizens of Roma ethnic origin in case of a threat to remove their sole residences.