The undesired stop of a lengthy journey
13,000 asylum seekers, mostly Syrian war refugees, have arrived to Bulgaria in the last few years. They desire a safe-conduct that will open the gates to other countries of the European Union, while Bulgaria is trying to close the door of the Turkish border.
The workers in the presidential office of the Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees rejoice in the recent donation of the Spanish ceramics company Roca. After talking with the experts that assist President Nikolai Tchirpanliev, seems clear that money-talk is frequent in the Agency.
As far as the end of February, Bulgaria held roughly 13,000 asylum seekers. 78 per cent of those are Syrians that fled from the Civil War in their country. 70 per cent of these Syrian citizens are Kurds.
The massive influx of refugees, more than 7,000 in 2013, caught the Syrian authorities off guard.
2013 was the year when Syrian asylum seekers skyrocketed in Bulgaria.
“The country reacted a bit late but in the most proper way,” says Mr Tchirpanliev. Numerous reports were done about the conditions of the refugee camps in south-eastern Bulgaria, close to the Turkish border. Amnesty International went to the camp in Harmanli last November and reported “inhumane conditions” at the emergency accommodation centre. There were threats of hunger strike after one thousand asylum seekers were held in “metal containers, tents and a dilapidated building of a former military complex.”
“They were not correct enough,” says Mr Tchirpanliev, “and I would say they even cheated and I can prove it using the words of the interpreter during their visit.”
“At the same time we had another visit of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In this particular moment, we moved the people from the tents to the building that was renovated.”
“Amnesty International said that the situation here is severe, that people are sent to tents during the winter. At the same time, the UNHCR said that okay, it was the past, and now people are moved to a newly renovated building. They [Amnesty International] were not correct.”
The UNHCR report from November 21 2013 had the headline “Bulgaria struggles to cope with Syrian influx at dilapidated camp,” and describes the scarcity of food and resources that the refugees suffered in Harmanli.
Rosa Vroom, a Spanish freelance journalist, visited the camp in Harmanli to cover a story about the refugees.
“The UNHCR and private organisations had put pressure on the State Agency for Refugees for their non-transparency policy in September and October.”
“There were some inconveniences when we [Ms Vroom and her colleague Cristina Aldehuela] accessed the camp. We received permission to go informally, via email. But when we arrived there were problems. ‘The Commander is not here, he left,’ they told us. But two hours after they let us in.”
“The camp had improved when we arrived. However, the environment was tense and infrastructures were insufficient. There was also a huge lack of information and the only food that they received came from a private company, Aladin Foods.”
Bulgaria is EU’s poorest member. Tight finances were the excuse in November, after the wave of Syrian refugees. On November 22, the European Commission set the emergency measures, and Bulgaria received €5.6 million from the EU Refugee Fund. The Czech and Slovak Republics also sent €2 million. Since then, the Agency has improved and adapted facilities to host “4,600 asylum seekers in seven different places,” says Mr Tchirpanliev.
Krastyo Petkov, Professor in Economic Sociology in the Economic University in Sofia and head of the Union of Bulgarian Economists, explains that Bulgaria is a country with a “really short memory on transnational migration.”
It is the first time that Bulgaria experiences the so-called “organic spontaneous wave of transnational migration.”
“The southeast region and the Bulgarian state weren’t prepared for such kind of increasing tide of people coming here and asking to be settled or to be transferred to somewhere else.”
The only precedents of migration in Bulgaria recent history are the “huge Jewish emigration [50,000 people] agreed with the Israel government” in 1948, when the Israeli state was formed; and the Revival Process, as they called it, in the 1980s,” where 300,000 Bulgarian Muslims became refugees in the neighbouring Turkey due to an extremist nationalistic policy lead by the government.
Professor Petkov says: “According to our estimation, around 25 per cent of the immigrants, if we have in mind the central-south region of Bulgaria, are prepared to move further west in the heart of Europe, either they are labour migrants or business migrants.”
Using Bulgaria as a trampoline to thrive economically in other EU countries is not only what economic migrants wish, but also asylum seekers.
Rosa Vroom says: The refugees in Bulgaria started to arrive last summer from Turkey because the procedures through Greece were turning gradually more complicated. All these news reach [the refugees in] Turkey and Syria.”
“They come with a sole idea, arrive in other countries of the European Union where the situation is more favourable for them. In their status of vulnerability being witnesses of the Syrian conflict, I personally understand that they only consider that possibility or that they hold into a single goal. In general, they don’t consider the chance of living in Bulgaria.”
Applications for asylum happen mostly in Western European countries, even lots of the Syrian refugees are trapped in Bulgaria
Mr Tchirpanliev says: “Somebody has told them that once they are in Bulgaria and receive refugee status, they will be able to work everywhere in the European Union. This is not the truth.”
“So we were not obliged only to deal with the huge influx but also to explain the EU regulations related to asylum seekers.”
“We are giving them information daily. It is responsibility of our officers and servants, but also the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and humanitarian NGOs who work here in Bulgaria help us inform them about the regulations. Some of them have regular meetings with representatives of their diaspora or embassies, so they get information in their native language.”
Mr Tchirpanliev makes some analysis: the Agency expected that a huge influx of refugees for this spring, but this didn’t happen. “Why? Because we made them aware of the regulations and they probably called their relatives in the other side and told them that it is not like this, you cannot expect to come to Bulgaria and receive that kind of status of being free to go and work in any country.”
Passport procedures take “a long time,” says Ms Vroom. “We even met a refugee ho got the permit 8 months later, when there wasn’t bureaucratic saturation yet.”
“Afterwards, the principal problem was saturation. I think they have done well. They have coordinated to the extent possible with private entities.”
Thus, the outcome of Bulgaria being part of an open border EU is people leaving the country to the West and people entering country from the East. These two migrant groups are severely different socioeconomically.
With the 12,000 refugees surviving with a grant of 65 leva (€32.5) per month, Bulgaria has been busy sheltering its land from foreign invasion. In November 2013, before taking care of the poorly stacked up refugees in Harmanli, they stationed more than a thousand policemen in the “Green Border” with Turkey while they were building a €3 million wall.
The 33 km long, 3 metre-tall fence, built to stop immigrants from entering illegally is not the only one in the European Union. Greece already completed a 10.5 km barbed-wire fence in 2012, which caused a deviation of contraband precisely to the Bulgarian border. Spain has similar fences in its autonomous cities Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish enclaves in continental Africa, to stop the big influx of people that aim for European soil.
These projects to build a fenced Fortress Europe are coordinated and funded by Frontex, the European agency for border coordination. The Bulgarian fence is criticised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Rosa Vroom explains that “in the case of Bulgaria, the pretext to build this wall is to repulse the traffickers’ activities.”
“In a case like this, the refugees will seek new options, maybe even more dangerous ones. It is a problem that we cannot hide. It reflects an attitude that is not sustainable. It reflects a really unpleasant stance by us.”
“Bulgaria is a full member of the EU so we are obliged to do everything according to the decisions and the new regulations. We don’t make any division between the people coming to Bulgaria. There are some priorities towards the Syrians, of course, due to the war,” says Mr Tchirpanliev.
“We appreciate a lot the assistance that we have received, but the money is never enough.” The Agency demands for further assistance. “We shouldn’t forgive that the European Union was created on the base of share of responsibility, on the burden sharing.”
“So there are some countries like Poland, Czech Republic, the Baltic Countries, Slovak Republic, in which we cannot find any asylum seekers. Having roughly 15,000 people in Bulgaria and having nobody or a few hundred people in other countries is not burden sharing.”
Mr Tchirpanliev warns in the end: “We try to explain in every European forum that we have to stick to the solidarity and burden sharing. Otherwise, these people that do not want to stay here will find their way to other countries.”
Rosa Vroom says: “Political parties are trying to take advantage of this situation and gain supporters in the public opinion. In a population with so little migrant tradition you can picture it. In a country with no shareholder transparency you can keep picturing it.”
“As Javier Bauluz [human rights journalist and Pulitzer prize] said, frontier policies don’t consider the immigrant’s individual rights. That is very traumatic and painful for those who arrive. So painful that plenty of them won’t want to come to Bulgaria, and Bulgaria could have received a lot of positive things from the refugees.”