SOFIA (Reuters) - Authorities in the Bulgarian city of Sliven have set up police checkpoints around the Roma neighbourhood, as the government considers tougher measures for a community it says has flaunted rules designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
For Georgi Borissov, a 30-year-old father of three who lives there, the steps to limit the movement of large numbers of people in and out of the enclaves are discriminatory against Roma people like himself.
“There is a problem in this country, the whole country,” he said, referring to the coronavirus outbreak that has swept across Europe in recent weeks.
“And then again they say ‘it is the Roma’,” he told Reuters, speaking by telephone from Sliven, a picturesque town of 90,000 people some 300 km (186 miles) east of the capital Sofia.
Like other countries in Europe, Bulgaria has introduced strict curbs on travel between cities and abroad and closed schools and restaurants.
On Friday, parliament voted to allow the military to help enforce measures designed to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
But in Sliven, as well as Nova Zagora, Kazanlak and Roman, authorities have gone further by cordoning off Roma areas within city limits, sometimes erecting makeshift walls to block roads.
Bulgarian officials have said the Roma, Europe’s biggest ethnic minority which rights groups say often suffers prejudice and social exclusion, are not following social distancing rules, justifying the extra measures.
The interior ministry has said police would be ready to take yet tougher steps against Roma citizens.
“I would say that coercion is needed in certain situations there, because we are obliged to protect the rest of the population,” Interior Minister Mladen Marinov told NOVA TV, referring to Fakulteta, the biggest Roma area in Sofia.
A senior member of the nationalist VMRO party, a junior government coalition partner, has urged authorities to “close the ghettos everywhere.”
“What if the ghettos turn out to be the real nests of contagion?” Angel Dzhambazki, member of the European Parliament and deputy leader of VMRO said in a statement.
He referred to poor living conditions in Roma neighbourhoods that made it harder to maintain high levels of hygiene, and said some Roma living there had returned from Spain and Italy - two countries badly hit by the coronavirus.
So far 218 Bulgarians have tested positive for the virus, and three people have died.
According to the 2011 census, 325,000 Roma people live in Bulgaria, a country of 7 million. The European Commission estimates there are more than twice that number, or about 750,000 people.
Some Roma say local policies stem from prejudice.
“Why are they closing only our neighbourhoods? Why are they not closing others?” said 60-year-old Fidanka Kirilova, who lives in Fakulteta, where more than 45,000 live. Fakulteta itself has not been cordoned off.
The mayor of Nova Zagora said special measures were a necessity.
“Residents were moving around in large numbers within the town after the (mass gathering) ban was introduced,” Nikolay Grozev told the bTV broadcaster.
Stela Kostova, head of the Sliven-based Roma Academy of Culture and Education, a non-governmental group working on integration projects for the Roma, said the community would feel the effects of the lockdown hard.
“There are people who make a living from collecting bottles and other objects from garbage cans,” she said. “Now they are not allowed to do that.”
Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Mike Collett-White