At the beginning of November, the Concordia Foundation invited Austrian journalists to visit Bulgaria to learn about the work of the foundation and other organisations from the non-governmental sector, as well as the state social policies of Bulgaria in general. Experts from the institutions and other organisations from the non-governmental sector, including the National Network for Children, were invited to talk to the journalists. Below you will see highlights from the publications of the publications Salzburger Nachrichten and Die Press with the stories of children, families and organisations that support them, as well as the opinions of experts and politicians. All of them through the eyes of Austrian journalists.
The text below is an abridged version of a Salzburger Nachrichten publication
The poorest children in the EU are in Bulgaria
Every third child in Bulgaria is at risk of poverty. The country is at the bottom of the EU-27. According to the experts, political instability, prejudices and misinformation slow down progress in the Bulgarian social system. The new social minister Ivanka Shalapatova wants to make a positive change. For such a change, she also relies on the cooperation of non-governmental organisations, she told Austrian journalists. However, their work has been in jeopardy in recent months and years.
The Roma communities in the country are mainly affected by poverty. According to the UN children’s fund UNICEF – 46.5% of poor children in Bulgaria are from the minority, although the Roma make up only 10% of the population. Many of them live in conditions that some in the EU would not think possible: in barracks without access to running water, electricity, sewage or garbage disposal.
Children who grow up in extreme poverty have little chance of breaking the cycle of misery without help. “Of the 47 Roma students we care for, maybe 15 will succeed,” says Yordanka Ivanova, director of the Concordia Day Center in Malki Iskar, a small village about 55 kilometers from Sofia. Among those he hopes for is Biljana’s Roma family. Bilyana, 25, has five children. Three of them visit the centre every day after school, which offers children and mothers educational, health, psychological and social support, as well as food and showers.
Bilyana lives with her husband, a forestry worker, and their five children in a remote settlement, the so-called mahala, near Malki Iskar. The family of seven lives in a punctured trailer on a decommissioned track with an area of no more than 10 square meters. They have only three beds. They have no toilet and shower. They bring water from the only water supply in the village. The refrigerator and satellite dish run on current they have picked up from a nearby cable. There are piles of garbage around the trailer, and when it rains, the path to their “home” sinks into mud. Despite these circumstances, three of Bilyana’s children go to school every day. “they love going to school and are never absent,” says the young mother proudly.
Despite compulsory education up to the age of 16, there are children in Bulgaria who do not go to school. It is not clear how many there are. Education expert Ognyan Isaev, director of the Trust for a Social Alternative and himself part of the Roma minority, sees a major problem in discrimination through legal provisions that indirectly affect Roma more than the majority. For example, bureaucratic hurdles make acquiring identity documents a challenge for residents of the slums, about 25 percent of which are illegal. Without an official address, registration for a school exam is impossible. Textbooks and public transport are free up to the seventh grade, but after that they have to be paid for, which is unaffordable for large families like Bilyana’s, which live on about 200 euros in government aid a month.
In addition comes segregation. There are schools with almost only Roma children with a low standard. According to Isaev, it is not the students themselves who are to blame for the low educational results, but the “prejudices of the professionals”. Isaev sees proof of this in the fact that about half of Bulgarian Roma live abroad. The majority of children there are “well integrated” into the school system. “Unfortunately, Bulgaria is losing human capital,” laments Isaev, even though it is one of the countries with the fastest declining population in the world.
The director of “Concordia Bulgaria” Stanimir Georgiev also confirms this thesis. “T. so-called “gypsy schools” receive financial support according to the number of registered students. However, schools are not very interested in ensuring that children actually attend class. There are quite a few successful Roma children, but they need two or three times more effort to achieve good results.”
According to Georgi Bogdanov, prejudices towards the school system and non-governmental organisations are partly the result of propaganda and disinformation campaigns. The executive director of the National Network for Children, a community of 140 non-governmental organisations and individuals advocating for children’s rights, believes that propagandists from and for Russia, as well as ultraconservative circles in the United States, are spreading lies. The whole non-governmental sector was accused by these circles of kidnapping children from schools and sending them to Norway, for example, where they would be adopted by homosexuals. Bogdanov describes this accusation as “absurd”. “However, the misinformation had its effect: Parents became alarmed and took their children out of school,” he says.
The parties in the Bulgarian government look at the problems in different ways. Politicians believe that Roma have full access to education and healthcare, they just don’t use it. The existence of all-Roma schools is also officially denied, and it is even claimed that schools in areas with a Roma majority are even better financially equipped than others. However, structural problems are also recognised in government circles. They report discrimination based on anti-Roma prejudice, misinformation and a lack of political will by previous governments. Some political parties in Bulgaria are not interested in improving the situation of the Roma. This makes the Roma population easier to manipulate and to buy votes. Ognyan Isaev only partially agrees with this statement. He believes that overall very poor people, including Bulgarians, are susceptible to buying votes.
Minister Shalapatova’s desire to fight “above all with child poverty”. The non-partisan minister of social affairs and labour directed Austrian media representatives to the new social law, which aims to more closely monitor the quality of services. Shalapatova herself enters the post with previous experience in the NGO sector and wants to invest more in poverty prevention through an integrative approach that, in addition to financial support, also includes social services and job opportunities. In addition to state bodies and public institutions, we also rely on non-governmental organisations such as Concordia, which manages the only crisis centre for children in Sofia. However, it is not clear whether Minister Shalapatova will be able to introduce practices for lasting positive change. She has been in office since June 2023 and could be affected by the rotation of government positions in nine months.
Instability characterises politics in Bulgaria, where five parliamentary elections have been held in the last two years. After the local elections in October, there are already many new mayors. If the socialist candidate for mayor of Sofia, Vanya Grigorova, had won, it would have affected social work as well. Grigorova, who was born and grew up in the Roma settlement Hristo Botev, spoke out against the “dirty NGOs” during the election campaign, reports Bogdanov. Grigorova wanted to disband the aid organizations and transfer the tasks to the communities. To the relief of civil society, the socialist lost the second round of the elections in the capital in November, but by a narrow margin, and Grigorova announced that she would contest the election results.
See the abridged version of a Die Press publication here .