News / Europe

Syrian Refugees Flood Bulgaria, Expose Flaws in EU Refugee Policy

Syrian refugees try to stay warm near open fires in front of their unheated tents in a refugee camp in the town of Harmanli, Bulgaria, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013.  AP Photo/Valentina Petrova
Syrian refugees try to stay warm near open fires in front of their unheated tents in a refugee camp in the town of Harmanli, Bulgaria, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. AP Photo/Valentina Petrova
Cecily Hilleary
Bulgaria is facing mounting criticism for its failure to adequately provide shelter, food and medical care to thousands of migrants who have entered the country over the past year, the majority of them Syrian asylum seekers. Aid and humanitarian groups are also worried about rising xenophobia, which, they say, has refugees living in a state of chronic fear. But some analysts say these criticisms aren’t fair and that too much is being expected from one of the poorest countries in the European Union.

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, Bulgaria is required to take in and protect all asylum seekers. Last year, roughly 11,600 migrants crossed into Bulgaria from Turkey, most of them Syrian. What these refugees found when they got there wasn’t much better than what they left. ­­­­­­­

Boris Cheshirkov, spokesman for the UN Refugee Agency, (UNHCR) in Bulgaria, says up until recently, Bulgaria had only three refugee centers that could accommodate no more than 1,200 refugees. But these centers quickly filled up, and migrants were forced to sleep in hallways, tents and in the streets.  So the government seized several dilapidated public buildings to house the overflow, but these lacked heat and hot water and staffing.

A man stands by tents as snow falls in a refugee camp set in the Bulgarian town of Harmanli, south-east of Sofia, on November 27, 2013. AFPA man stands by tents as snow falls in a refugee camp set in the Bulgarian town of Harmanli, south-east of Sofia, on November 27, 2013. AFP
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A man stands by tents as snow falls in a refugee camp set in the Bulgarian town of Harmanli, south-east of Sofia, on November 27, 2013. AFP
A man stands by tents as snow falls in a refugee camp set in the Bulgarian town of Harmanli, south-east of Sofia, on November 27, 2013. AFP
Registered asylum seekers are given no food, but the government does give them an allowance of about $1.50 per person per day--enough to buy a liter of milk or a kilo of potatoes.

“Hundreds of people were accommodated in classrooms that were turned into makeshift dormitories,” Cheshirkov said.  “Bathrooms were few, with about 80-100 people sharing a single bathroom. The sewage systems were unable to cope with the sheer numbers of people, and, of course, as they hadn’t been maintained for a number of years, they quickly started to block and back up.” 

Human Rights Watch Refugee Program Director Bill Frelick has just returned from Bulgaria where about 10 thousand Syrian refugees were staying at a camp at the Turkish border.

“It is so cold that refugees’ only effort is to make their families survive,” he told VOA Turkish.

The situation first came to public light in October, when Bulgarian National Television used a hidden camera to reveal conditions inside the Voenna Rampa center in the capital, Sofia. Their report got the attention of the European Commission, UNCHR and other humanitarian agencies, who came in November to see for themselves.

“Conditions in the reception centers are deplorable,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported in its January 2 assessment. Amnesty International noted that refugees “are also at risk of arbitrary detention, face lengthy delays in registration and are routinely deprived of access to fair and effective asylum procedures.” 

The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee cited “inhuman and degrading treatment and display of white-collar cruelty of the highest order.”

  • Map of Bulgaria
  • Border police stand guard next to razor wire fence along Bulgarian border with Turkey, November 28, 2013. When finished, the fence will span 19 miles of border where patrolling is most difficult.
  • Border policemen stand guard along border with Turkey, near the village of Golyam Dervent, Thursday, Nov., 28 2013.  The UNHCR says Syrians are smuggled across the border in small groups.
  • Syrian refugees try to stay warm near open fires in front of their unheated tents in a refugee camp in the town of Harmanli, Bulgaria, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013.
  • A boy tries to light a fire to warm himself at the refugee camp at Harmanli. UNHCR/D.Kashavelov
  • A Syrian girl prepares a fire in front of tents at a refugee camp in Harmanli, 280 km (173 miles) east of Sofia, December 9, 2013. REUTERS/Pierre Marsaut
  • Cooking at Harmanli refugee center, Bulgaria. The UNHCR provides one hot meal/day/person at four camps, but funding will run out in late January.
  • Bulgarian doctors perform medical checkups on Syrian children at a refugee centre in Sofia October 26, 2013.
  • In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, migrants waiting for a meal in the center for asylum seekers in the village of Bogovadja, 50 Kilometers (30 Miles) south of Serbian capital, Belgrade form a line.
  • A Syrian woman looks out of the window of a container home at the refugee camp in Harmanli, 280km (174 miles) east of Sofia December 9, 2013.
  • A boy enjoys a warm winter day at the closed container and tent camp in Harmanli. UNHCR/D.Kashavelov
  • Container homes at Harmanli refugee reception center, Bulgaria.
  • Syrian refugee have their lunch at a refugee camp as they wait for the visit of Kristalina Georgieva, EU Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response and Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, November 22, 2013.
  • Most of the refugee families live dormitory style, maintaining privacy with curtains of sheets or blankets, in the temporary accommodation center at Voenna Rampa, Sofia. UNHCR/D.Kashavelov
  • A girl uses her mobile device in the temporary refugee accommodation centrer in Vrajdebna. UNHCR/D.Kashavelov
  • Supporters of a Nationalist movement protest in the town of Pernik, near Sofia November 17, 2013. Nationalist supporters gathered to protest against the plans of the local municipality to shelter immigrants in detention centers. REUTERS
  • Demonstrators participate in a rally in central Sofia November 17, 2013. Several hundred people gathered in a peaceful march under the slogan "Warning! Fascism!" to protest against recent violence against refugees and migrants.
  • Mother Ihlas Kambar, 36, lives with her two children, Faris and Ahmed, and the baby of the brother of her husband. They are in Busmanci Detention centre in Sofia. UNHCR/D.Kashavelov
  • Syrian mother waiting to be fingerprinted in the closed container and tent camp in Harmanli. UNHCR/D.Kashavelov
  • Syrian refugee Hannan Jendo and his daughter asitting in in the spot which used to be their tent space. Now they are living in new room with better conditions in one of the repaired buildings in the camp in Harmanli. UNHCR/D.Kashavelov
  • Syrian mother holds her grandson close to the stove in front of their closed container house in the refugee camp in Harmanli. UNHCR/D.Kashavelov

Nationalists seize on refugee issue

Refugees also face another disturbing trend, says Amnesty International. The mass influx of migrants has triggered a wave of nationalistic fervor goaded by public statements of right-wing leaders and nationalist media outlets.  There have been several attacks on migrants in recent months.

In October, Atake Party MP Magdalena Tasheva appeared on television and denounced Syrian refugees as “terrorists,” “savages” and “mass murders,” predicting refugees would soon “start raping and chopping heads off.”  

In November, several neo-Nazi factions, including the local branch of the international Blood and Honor Skinhead network, formed the Nationalist Party of Bulgaria, dedicated to cleansing Bulgaria of “foreign and alien immigrant scum.”  The party has organized so-called “civil patrols,” which stop and check foreigners—and a portion of the general population thinks that this is a good idea. 

This picture taken on November 22, 2013 shows members of Bulgarian nationalist organizations patrolling the centre of Sofia. AFPThis picture taken on November 22, 2013 shows members of Bulgarian nationalist organizations patrolling the centre of Sofia. AFP
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This picture taken on November 22, 2013 shows members of Bulgarian nationalist organizations patrolling the centre of Sofia. AFP
This picture taken on November 22, 2013 shows members of Bulgarian nationalist organizations patrolling the centre of Sofia. AFP
“According to a recent poll, 62% of Bulgarians are not in favor of refugees arriving in the country,” said Barbora Černušáková, Amnesty’s Bulgaria researcher, “and almost 75-percent of the population say they would not accept refugees in their town or village.”

Černušáková met with officials in November to discuss the problem. “It is extremely important that public figures be careful not to trigger more xenophobia and anti-immigrant attitudes,” Černušáková said. “The onus is on the authorities to prevent them.”

In October, the government announced plans to build a wire fence along a 30-kilometer stretch of the border with Turkey where, it said, terrain was too rugged to patrol.  The government also stationed an additional 1,160 officers along the border to prevent refugees from entering the country.

“Every country has the right to protect its borders and to adequately police its borders—but that should not amount to pushbacks,” Černušáková said, “but under international human rights law, any country--including Bulgaria--has to ensure access to territory of all refugees, and anybody should be able to enter Bulgaria and has the right to apply for asylum.” 

Border police stand guard next to a border fences which are planned to be built on the Bulgarian border with Turkey, near the village of Golyam Dervent on November 28, 2013. AFP PHOTO / NIKOLAY DOYCHINOVBorder police stand guard next to a border fences which are planned to be built on the Bulgarian border with Turkey, near the village of Golyam Dervent on November 28, 2013. AFP PHOTO / NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV
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Border police stand guard next to a border fences which are planned to be built on the Bulgarian border with Turkey, near the village of Golyam Dervent on November 28, 2013. AFP PHOTO / NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV
Border police stand guard next to a border fences which are planned to be built on the Bulgarian border with Turkey, near the village of Golyam Dervent on November 28, 2013. AFP PHOTO / NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV
Last week, Bulgaria announced a delay in completing the fence, which it had hoped to complete by early February.

Bulgaria, a dumping ground for Euro migrants

But some analysts say these criticisms are far too harsh. Bulgaria’s geographic position in southeastern Europe makes it the first stop for Africans, Middle Easterners and others seeking a better life in the West. 

Under an EU law known as the “Dublin Regulation,” migrants can only apply for asylum in one country--the first EU country they enter.  But many migrants who apply for asylum in Bulgaria travel onwards to France, Germany or Scandinavia, where jobs and welfare systems are better. “Dublin” permits those countries to deport these individuals back to Bulgaria. 

The UNHCR has called on European participants to the Dublin Agreement to temporarily suspend transfers of asylum-seekers back to Bulgaria, saying they risk inhuman or degrading treatment in the country. 

UNHCR's Cheshirkov says in recent weeks, the EU has provided €5.6 million ($7,650,00) to the Bulgarian government so that conditions can be improved, and several member states have made individual donations the help Bulgaria increase its response. 

Bulgaria is a poor country.  Corruption, a weak judicial system and organized crime have hindered  its economy, which never quite recovered from the global economic and euro crises.  Average wages are about $4.75 an hour and salaries stand at about $490 a month, with 12% unemployment. 

“The situation is far worse in rural areas,” according to Kristen Ghodsee, Director of Gender and Women's Studies Program at Bowdoin College and an expert in post-communist Bulgaria.
 
“There are places in Bulgaria—this is an EU state, now—where people live on $200 a month, and they’ve left the market,” Ghodsee said.  “They grow their own food. They have sheep or goats for milk. They cut wood for the winter. They live as if it were the 19th Century.”   

So when locals hear that the UNHCR is providing refugees one hot meal a day, says Ghodsee, they are resentful; that’s more than many Bulgarians get to eat. 

“It’s not that people think that Syrians are animals or barbarians.  It’s that they are quite frustrated that the EU is treating these Syrian refugees better than ordinary Bulgarians and expecting the Bulgarians to take care of these Syrians, when, in fact, there are more resources available in the Western European countries," Ghodsee said.

HRW's Frelick says Bulgaria is certainly not the only country at fault. 

“This is a very serious humanitarian crisis and so far the international community--including the United States--has failed to deal with it properly,” he said.

 

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