Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg concluded a three-day visit to Sofia during which he assessed progress on the protection of the rights of minorities and disadvantaged children.
The Commissioner met with the Minister of Interior, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Minister of Labour and Social Policy, and Acting Minister of Education, Youth and Science, as well as with members of Parliament. He also held discussions with the Ombudsman, the Commission for the Protection against Discrimination, religious leaders and a large number of civil society representatives.
The Commissioner encouraged the authorities to ensure equal opportunities for minorities. Of particular concern is the situation of the Roma community. He visited a Roma settlement in the Republika district of Sofia where he assessed the living conditions as inhumane. "No one should live in these conditions in today's Europe" he declared. He called upon the authorities to enhance social housing and to ensure that no eviction takes place without offering suitable alternative accommodation.
The Commissioner welcomed the programmes aimed at Roma inclusion and appealed for further targeted measures to improve Roma's access to health care and employment. "Local authorities should also be involved in this process" he stressed. He shared the authorities' view that education is of paramount importance and noted that specific attention should be paid to the enrolment of Roma children in schools and that root causes of drop-out should be addressed.
The protection of other ethnic groups living in Bulgaria, such as the Turkish and Macedonian minorities, was also discussed. Referring to the Council of Europe human rights standards, he recommended a renewed, systematic dialogue with these communities in order to address and solve all pending issues.
Commissioner Hammarberg noted with concern cases of xenophobic acts, including against the Muslim community. He was informed of cases of harassment against Pomak leaders and teachers apparently based on ill-founded suspicions of Islamic fundamentalism. He invited the authorities to address these problems promptly.
"Hate speech against minority groups must be countered with preventive and prosecutorial actions. Leading politicians should lead as example of tolerance and mutual respect." The Commissioner also indicated that independent human rights structures, such as the Ombudsman and the Commission for the Protection against Discrimination, are crucial institutions for reinforcing the protection of individuals against any possible abuse.
Commissioner Hammarberg welcomed the measures taken by the authorities to improve the respect of the rights of children living in institutions. He had the possibility to observe progress when visiting an institution for children with mental disabilities in Gorna Banya in Sofia. "Efforts have been made to close a number of old and unsuitable institutions for children with disabilities." He invited the authorities to further this process of de-institutionalisation by adopting a national strategy that would include local authorities as well as parents and civil society organisations.
Finally, the Commissioner participated in a conference on inclusive education, organised by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and the Mental Disability Advocacy Center, and called for a better integration of children with special needs in mainstream schools. "Although Bulgaria has adopted policies for such changes, improvements on the ground remain limited." The Commissioner stressed that the 2008 decision of the European Committee of Social Rights regarding access of children with disabilities to education and training should be fully implemented.
The Commissioner will publish early next year a report with his recommendations on the issues raised during this visit.