Ivan Ivanov - Discrimination and the Romani complex

15 July 1999

Early in my life, I experienced a violent human rights violation: the Bulgarian government changed my name from the Muslim Romani name which was mine and with which I was born to a "typical Bulgarian" one. I was fifteen years old and in my first year of grammar school in my hometown of Haskovo in southern Bulgaria. It was 1982. They told me I would not be able to continue my studies if I did not change my name. Other people in my town were threatened with expulsion from their workplaces. Shops refused to sell bread to people who would not change their names. Several years after they changed the names of Roma, they did the same thing to the Turks in Bulgaria. The experience of losing my name left me deeply scarred and to today I feel the effects of having a name which is not my own. In many ways, it has fundamentally affected the way I see the world.

When it was suggested to me that I should write the "Meet the ERRC" column for an issue of Roma Rights, I thought for a while, and then decided that I wanted to write about the many offensive absurdities I have encountered while working for the advancement of the rights of Roma in Europe.

According to official statistics which, until recently, the Bulgarian police had a habit of making public, the number of crimes committed by Roma was percent-wise larger than the number committed by non-Roma. The crimes committed by Roma were, however, almost entirely petty crimes. Roma were not present among perpetrators of economic and white-collar crimes. Roma tend not to commit such crimes: how could a Rom accept a bribe, embezzle corporate funds, misuse the company car? It is nearly impossible to find Roma in positions in the administration or in large businesses where they would be in a position to commit such crimes. Also, these crimes are very often not reported. The question is not how many crimes are committed total. Who knows how many crimes are committed? There are hundreds of thousands of small and large crimes committed every day. The problem is that the police are helping to make a picture of crime in which crime is considered something Romani. The public believes this picture, because it needs to trust the police. And this picture of crime is anti-Roma.

I have seen books with advice such as, "How to protect ourselves from Romani pickpockets." Why don't people write books entitled "How to protect the state economy from intellectual crimes." In eastern Europe at the moment it is also common practice for politicians to get elected by promising to crack down on "criminality", which the public understands as "stopping the Gypsies". In this way, they further heighten anti-Romani sentiment.

The police in Bulgaria often organise raids on Roma quarters. Police work is now judged on how effectively the police narrow the gap between solved and unsolved crimes. The easiest way of solving small crimes is to detain Roma and to batter them into confessing something. Despite numerous reported instances of police brutality against Roma in recent years, including cases in which Roma died in police custody, the police deny that they use force and continue with their disingenuous reporting practices. Obvious instances of mistreatment or murder of Roma are reported by the police as the unfortunate outcome of self-defence. This includes instances where Roma have been shot in the back while fleeing.

The Bulgarian media additionally provoke hostility against Roma. I remember one case in which a Romani man was killed by a non-Rom and the next day one of the prominent Bulgarian dailies reported the incident under the headline "A bullet killed a Gypsy at the tram stop". Imagine if the situation had been the opposite — if the perpetrator had been Romani and the victim non-Roma. There would have been outrage, solemn speeches, oaths to crack down on "criminality", etc. But in this case, the newspaper did not even report that a person had been involved in the killing of the Rom. I also can't forget an article I saw once about the murder of a young non-Romani woman in Varna on the Black Sea coast in Bulgaria. One of the national daily newspapers wrote that the cruel murder could only have been committed by a "psychopath or a Gypsy". After a few weeks, it was reported that the murder had been committed by her husband, a non-Romani man.

On the other hand, police and prosecutors in Bulgaria find it almost impossible to prove that crimes were ethnically motivated. All over eastern Europe, laws have been adopted which provide stiffer punishments for crimes which are racially motivated. But these laws are often not applied. For example, Bulgarian Criminal Code Article 162 prohibits incitement to racial and national hostility or hatred, as well as racial discrimination and violence against people with different nationality, race or religion. In my experience as a human rights activist on behalf of Roma, I have worked with many, many cases, and I cannot remember a single instance in which prosecutors requested that charges be brought against non-Roma or police officers under Article 162. Inscriptions on the walls read "Death to Gypsies". It is presumed that these are written by drunk or stoned skinheads. Nothing is done about such inscriptions and their authors.

Discrimination and prejudice are evident at all levels of society. Roma are not let into bars and restaurants or are not served if they manage to make it inside. Where I am working as I write these lines, in Ostrava, in northeastern Czech Republic, Romani children make up 55% of the populations of special schools - schools for mentally handicapped children. Sent to school on racist grounds, these children will not get good jobs in the future, can expect lives without dignity.

I began to think about the Romani issue when I was twelve or thirteen years old, when I began to realise that we are treated differently. If you are Rom, people are constantly suspecting you of something. Any time something bad happens — a petty theft in a tram or in a shop, people look at you. After years of such treatment, Roma develop a feeling of being constantly under suspicion. For many years, I did nothing about my feeling that there is a difference — I felt bad, but I did nothing. I knew that being Romani and being regarded as Romani affected relations all around me — in schools, in the street, in the attitude of the police towards Roma. I developed the complex that all Roma labour under and I still struggle with it. I have studied for twenty-seven years — I have finished medical studies and legal studies, and probably I will continue to study and much of my motivation stems from my deep desire — shared by all Roma — to be free of this feeling of difference.

In June 1993 I was selected by the local Romani leadership of the United Roma Union in Haskovo to attend a conference on the European Convention of Human Rights organised by the Council of Europe. There I met other young Roma who felt similar to me and were willing to speak about it. Some were getting involved with organisations for the protection of Roma rights. At the conference I also learned that there were international instruments and documents like the Convention which were law in Bulgaria and which could help us fight for our rights. In 1994 I attended a seminar on police brutality and Roma held by the Sofia-based organisation Human Rights Project (HRP) and I have attended many other seminars on national and international level since then. In 1996 I began working for the HRP. During that period I changed profession — I began studying law, although I had already finished my medical studies. I did this because through medicine I could help people on a person-to-person level, but I saw the necessity of systematic change and thought that the best field for such change was law.

Over the past ten years, a Romani movement has gathered strength. This is too short a time to effect real change in society — breaking stereotypes will take longer. But I think that in the future, if Roma are able to participate in socio-political life, things will change. Because the problems Roma face are not only their own; Roma face the problems of the whole society. Discrimination by the wider society makes Roma feel different, separate. Discrimination causes a range of complexes whereby they start to believe that they are second-class citizens. Reacting to this, many Roma begin to resent all non-Roma. This is often reflected as something people like to call "reverse discrimination". But it has nothing to do with reverse discrimination, it is the Romani identity being formed as the mirror image of society's racism.

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