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No Swimming Allowed: Bulgarian Roma Face Racial Discrimination At Public Pools

Ultimately, Arso Ganev says, Roma must rely on themselves by learning their rights and what measures they can use to defend themselves.
Ultimately, Arso Ganev says, Roma must rely on themselves by learning their rights and what measures they can use to defend themselves.

KYUSTENDIL, Bulgaria -- To beat the heat, Arso Ganev recently took his family to a local pool in their hometown of Kyustendil on the western fringes of Bulgaria.

Arriving late in the afternoon at a hotel with a pool open to guests and the public, Ganev and his daughter approached a young woman working there, enquiring what time it closed, hoping for a quick dip in the cool waters.

"She told me it was open until eight [o'clock], which sounded as if we had enough time to use the pool. But then an older lady jumped in and said there were over 50 guests currently at the hotel and said they couldn't let us in," Ganev said.

As they stood there, others whisked by and entered the pool complex unimpeded. Figuring it could be a scheduling snafu, Ganev asked if they could come back another day but soon concluded it was futile. He was sure that he and his family would be denied regardless of the day. It all had to do, Ganev suspected, with them being Roma.

"The [Romany] community is resigned to [discrimination]. They say that these are private businesses and that it is up to the owner whether or not to let them in. I don't agree. I think that once an establishment opens for business, it would be open to all ethnic groups," said Ganev, an educational adviser, in remarks to RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.

Like elsewhere in Europe, Roma in Bulgaria face widespread discrimination. Numbering at least 700,000 -- although an exact figure is elusive as many fear openly declaring their ethnicity -- the majority of Bulgaria's Roma live on the fringes of society, often facing widespread prejudice and hostility in public life.

And now as much of Europe broils in some of the hottest weather on record, cases of discrimination against Roma at public pools in Bulgaria appear to be on the rise, with incidents reported in several towns and cities across the country.

Last week, a frustrated Ganev took to social media to share his indignation and experience with discrimination in Kyustendil. That reverberated with other Roma, who also shared similar experiences with Ganev but had refrained from speaking out, he said, amid fear of repercussions.

Ognyan Isaev, an activist with Trust for Social Alternatives, an NGO funding projects to bring vulnerable groups, including the Roma, out of poverty, says there was a similar case of discrimination against Romany people at a local pool in Bankya, a suburb of the capital, Sofia.

In a Facebook post, Isaev said a couple had been denied entry at the Aquabankya complex, while others were given access, prompting Isaev to conclude it was only a "pool for whites."

RFE/RL requested but did not receive comment from Aquabankya, although, according to social-media posts shared by Isaev, it appears the couple did eventually meet with the Aquabankya owner, who offered an apology.

Discrimination Complaints

After the outcry over the incident in Bankya, Bulgaria's Commission for Protection Against Discrimination (KZD) said it was investigating. In comments to RFE/RL, the commission said it was also looking into a similar incident at a public pool in Sliven, a city of 120,000 people around 300 kilometers east of Sofia.

In 2023 alone, the KZD has investigated and confirmed several cases of such discrimination involving Roma at public pools in Velingrad, Veliko Tarnovo, Burgas, Pazardzhik, and Sofia.

In Velingrad, a town of some 22,000 in southern Bulgaria, the swimming complex first appealed the decision, arguing its decision to deny entry to Roma had nothing to do with racism but capacity limits. It later withdrew the appeal.

In 2021, a report by Bulgaria's independent Nova TV exposed discrimination against Roma at a public swimming complex in Veliko Tarnovo, a historical city of some 71,000 in central Bulgaria. Earlier this year, the KZD concluded the facility had engaged in discrimination and imposed a fine on its owner. The same report cited three other similar cases that year at other pools elsewhere in Bulgaria.

Like Ganev, Danail Filipov, a Romany man living in Kyusendil, has also faced discrimination at one of its public pools. Filipov says he, his family, and friends were turned away in 2018, when management claimed the facility was holding a private party. "I asked them that if the party was private, how come they let people behind us and in front of us in?" he told RFE/RL.

Tensions quickly boiled over and Filipov and his friends say they soon found themselves squaring off with the owner of the pool and staff members. When police were called in to intervene, only the Roma were charged.

The altercation had consequences, Filipov says. "My child was traumatized," he said, adding that he had no run-ins with similar racism when traveling in Europe. "We've come across different people, a different attitude abroad. Here, we are confronted by some kind of primitiveness from our fellow Bulgarians in Kyustendil," he said.

This all sounds sadly familiar to Ganev, who says he's been run out of nightclubs and restaurants in Kyustendil. "Because of things like that, I tried for years not to go anywhere outside of my neighborhood, and when I did go to a restaurant or bar, it was always one nearby," Ganev said.

Roma Hesitant To Come Forward

Daniela Mihailova, a lawyer who's worked on cases of Roma discrimination, says many establishments in Bulgaria have concocted a way to shield themselves from charges of racism when denying entry to Roma. "Many businesses have come up with internal rules to protect themselves. For example, they offer cards for regular users, reserve a certain percentage of seats.... These are usually just excuses and such procedures are rarely enforced," Mihailova told RFE/RL.

For both Filipov and Ganev, people's treatment at public pools is often based on the color of their skin. "When a group of Roma -- among them ones with darker skin -- tries to enter, no one is allowed in. When they return later, only the whiter, lighter ones are allowed in," he said.

Fighting such institutional racism in Bulgaria is made all the tougher by the unwillingness of many Roma to step forward and speak out. "People don't want to talk, they're afraid. They're afraid to file complaints and reports," said Dora Petkova, a sociologist focusing on integration issues.

That fear, coupled with what Petkova described as sluggish action by Bulgarian institutions, has just exacerbated racism toward the Romany community. "I think there are tensions all across society -- in the language of hatred and in the acts of hatred. As we can see, there are also anti-Semitic and homophobic acts. All done quite publicly and without absolutely no punishment," Petkova said.

She did say, however, that the overall situation has improved somewhat since Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007. A recent report by the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance concluded that Bulgaria had "achieved tangible progress since 2014 in fighting intolerance, introducing inclusive education, combating anti-Semitism, promoting integration of Roma, and supporting refugees." However, the report also noted "hate and prejudice against [the] LGBTI [community] and Roma persist and should be addressed."

Lawyer Mihailova says the Romany community has found some redress for racism in Bulgarian courts and now has the option of taking cases to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which some have already done.

In October 2022, the ECHR ordered Bulgaria to pay compensation to 56 Roma who were evicted in 2019 from a village near Plovdiv due to racism.

Ultimately, Ganev says, Roma must rely on themselves by learning their rights and what measures they can use to defend themselves. "What I'm trying to do is create a reflex inside the Romany community," Ganev said. "Because if we don't protect our rights, we can't survive."

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