Bulgaria’s ‘Chilly Welcome’ to Syrian Refugees


Rayna Stamboliyska – Open Democracy

As the civil war in Syria continues, refugees are desperately seeking refuge. It seems that Bulgaria has consistently preferred to engage in exacerbating the situation. Bulgarians have built a wall and are allowing far-right xenophobic rhetoric to prevail.

Over two million people have fled the havoc in Syria and sought refuge in bordering countries; at least one million of them are children, estimated the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) back in August 2013. Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq are the top five countries where most have resettled. Over the past several months, however, the exodus has shifted to Europe. For the majority of Syrians searching for a safe EU haven, the journey starts in Turkey where refugee smuggling blossoms. Today, Bulgaria counts over 10,000 refugees, an atypical surge this European border country was unprepared for.

Despite financial help from the EU, the Bulgarian government has consistently preferred to engage in exacerbating the situation. Intensifying influx of refugees in the country prompted the opening of more camps to host the newcomers. These hellholes are in incredibly squalid conditions, but this is where the Bulgarian government welcomes asylum seekers. In October 2013, Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev played the tough guy and sacked the head of Bulgaria’s Refugee Agency for “failing to handle the influx.” Yet, reception centres continue to be overcrowded, Syrians undergo an administrative hassle for weeks, and food, clothing and medicine are largely funded by donations from ordinary citizens.

The official excuse for not providing humane and dignified conditions for the refugees was “tight finances.” Bulgaria is indeed the EU’s poorest member, and media outlets have asked whether the country should shelter even more people in need. Yet, Bulgaria has recently received 6.4 million euros (8.8 million USD) from the EU’s Refugee Fund and 2 million euros (2.7 million USD) in aid from the Czech Republic and Slovakia; funds specifically dedicated to managing the Syrian refugees influx. Thus, the “tight finances” should not be a barrier any more.

In a recent interview with Bulgarian daily “Capital”, Vincent Cochetel, Director of the Bureau for Europe of UNHCR, highlighted the government’s mismanagement. Although UNHCR has offered to supply food and clothing for the harsh winter season, the organization faces a solid mess orchestrated and nurtured by the government. The millions of EU aid are managed by Bulgaria’s Ministry of Interior prior to reaching the State Agency for Refugees. The latter, however, is unable to wisely use them as it is still in the process of hiring people who will in turn decide upon the use of this money – decisions which will then transform into public tenders. All this takes time, and EU aid is to be used before the end of April 2014. It is likely that Doctors Without Borders efforts also face bureaucracy and sluggishness. While the Bulgarian government continues its white-collar exercise in futility, life conditions for Syrian refugees just worsen.

Wall(s) of shame

This description of the government’s efforts hardly does justice to other bolder moves. In order to curtail the migrant influx, the government is building a 33-km long, 3-meter tall fence in the mountainous region of Elhovo (close to the border with Turkey where about 85% of people are crossing). Referred to as a “temporary engineering installation,” the wall is said to cost 3 million euros (4 million USD) and would serve to redirect refugees to official border checkpoints. UNHCR thinks the wall is counterproductive as it will only push people to engage in more dangerous practices to enter the country. These barriers have proven effective; thus for instance, since Greece completed a heavily-guarded 10.5-km barbed-wire fence in 2012, smugglers have focused their activities on Bulgaria.

As these families and children in a desperate search for shelter seem to represent a serious threat to national security, the Ministers of Defense and of Interior have engaged in mobilizing significant numbers of police and army personnel both along the border with Turkey and within the country. In a press conference end of November 2013, the Minister of Defense praised the decision to deploy the army and police: “At the moment, with the current heightened police and army presence on the territory, the amount of people crossing through the Bulgarian border without permission has diminished significantly.” As with the wall of shame, it appears that funds are not too tight here: sending police to the border and sustaining their activities there actually cost double the budget of Bulgaria’s State Agency for Refugees.

The government’s latest bright idea was to build closed camps, that is detention centres, to receive incoming refugees. Such measures are illegal according to EU legislation; detention without criminal charges can only last for a short time and after a judge has issued a precisely worded warrant. The Interior Minister appears to have a selective memory and wildly varying ethical principles: while he is perfectly fine welcoming people fleeing war by putting them in a prison, he has appealed to the EU to remove Schengen restrictions on Bulgaria. In his bargain for visa-free travel for Bulgarians. Here, the Interior Minister claimed that the country’s role – “guarding the [EU] border … and neutralizing the risks for Europe” – should be rewarded as “[i]t will be unjust to keep those who guard the gate outside the house.”

Far-right crusaders

The Defense Minister estimated that each asylum seeker costs the country 1,084 leva (558 euros, 758 USD) per month, mostly in administration and facility costs. When reported by media, the number was interpreted as money asylum seekers received directly. Registered refugees actually receive only 65 leva (33 euros, 45 USD) per month to cover expenses.

The clarification, however, did little to quench the nationalist party, Ataka’s obnoxious declarations. Ataka, VMRO and other far-right factions have used refugees to ignite xenophobia, and at least three racially motivated attacks have been reported. Ataka has been noisily protesting against incoming refugees, threatening “civil war” and happily alleging openly on the media how migrants are actually criminals sent from “Black Africa” to disrupt Bulgaria’s national union and alter its ethnic homogeneity. After an Ataka MP warned the country that Syrian refugees were “cannibals” and that their presence was designed to disguise an “Islamic wave” supported by American and Turkish interests, a group of Syrian refugees have filed a complaint before the State Commission for Discrimination.

Such delirious and dangerous rhetoric has unfortunately turned out to be rather fruitful: on November 9, a new nationalist party was founded promising to “cleanse the country of foreign immigrant scum.” Additionally, according to a poll by Alpha Research, 83% of Bulgarians see the influx of refugees as a risk to national security. Support for Ataka (23 seats in Parliament) has doubled in October-November. Ultra-nationalist factions have seized the opportunity and formed ‘citizen patrols’ to check whether migrants “comply with the law of the State”. Some of these claimed to have official authorization by the authorities. The government ‘s best effort so far has been to “urge calm.”

Despite pervasive hate speech and a governmental program riddled with weaknesses, but supposed to deal with the influx, Syrian refugees and citizens who help them were granted the Human of the Year award. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights NGO, organizing the awards, honoured these people for “their strength, faith and courage [needed to] leave home and country, and risking death, inhumane and humiliating treatment, to attempt to live in dignity. [The reward also honours] Syrian refugees’ resistance to injustice and their determination to not be victims, but human beings.”


Rayna Stamboliyska is a research fellow based in Paris, France. She is a board member of the Open Knowledge Foundation France, and a freelance writer with a particular interest in health issues and freedom of speech in the Middle East. Rayna is the founder of RS Strategy, which advises decision-makers on knowledge technologies, ICT for development and transparency, in Africa and the Middle East.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.

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