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Τετάρτη, 26 Μαρτίου 2014

[EN] SYRIAN REFUGEES FACE CHILLY RECEPTION IN BULGARIA

Thousands of fleeing Syrians are being held in dilapidated refugee camps while right-wingers demand their expulsion and the authorities build a huge border fence to keep new asylum-seekers out.

Visiting the Voenna Rampa refugee camp, on the outskirts of Sofia, is not for the faint-hearted. The place is overcrowded, there is no hot water at the moment, and medical care is scarcely available for the hundreds of people who are packed into the camp.

They are Syrian refugees, including women and children, who have entered Bulgaria and thus the EU by crossing the Turkish border illegally.

“We live six families to one room, separating out private spaces inside with sheets. Everything around is dirty and we lack fresh water, while the heating is not working properly. This is hard to handle,” said one of the refugees, a young man called Ravan.


Bulgaria took in more than 10,000 migrants last year, around two-thirds of them coming from Syria. Most are detained for months on end, which is against both Bulgarian law and EU regulations. They are waiting for documents which will allow them to leave Bulgaria and find a job and a better life in other European countries, such as Switzerland and Germany.

But until they manage to leave, they have to endure the poor conditions in closed refugee camps like the Voenna Rampa. The country only has three dedicated, open refugee reception centres, which Bulgarian officials say can only properly cater for just 400 asylum seekers each. As a result, the camps are now overcrowded, with refugees undergoing administrative hassle for weeks, with insufficient food, clothing and medicine.

The government said recently that despite its tight finances, it allotted around 30 million leva (about 15 million euro) for the last quarter of 2013 alone to cope with the incoming wave of refugees.

According to a defence ministry estimate, each asylum seeker costs Bulgaria 1,084 leva (557 euro) per month, most of the money representing administration and accommodation costs. Registered refugees receive only 65 leva a month to cover their needs.

However, late last year Bulgaria received 6.4 million euro from the EU’s refugee fund and two million euro in aid from Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Fencing off the borders

In a bid to curtail the refugee influx, Bulgaria is building a 33-kilometre-long, three-metre-high fence in the mountainous region at the border with Turkey. This is the crossing point for around 85 per cent of illegal immigrants entering the Balkan country.

While the government hopes the fence will redirect refugees to official border checkpoints, experts say the measure is counter-productive.

“Introducing barriers, like fences or other deterrents, may lead people to undertake more dangerous crossings and further place the refugees at the mercy of smugglers, ” said Adrian Edwards of the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency.

Other similar initiatives have not succeeded. Greece completed a heavily-guarded 10.5-kilometre-long barbed-wire fence in 2012, but smugglers have focused their activities on Bulgaria after the Greek fence was built.

“It seems there will be a competition between the walls in Bulgaria and Greece,” says Tihomir Bezlov of the Study of Democracy Centre in Sofia.

"The main problem, as the experience with other borders shows, is that a wall cannot stop people who are ready to do anything in order to cross borders," Bezlov added.

Nationalists demand expulsions

Syrian refugees face not only poor living conditions in Bulgaria, but also xenophobia. The mass influx of migrants has triggered a wave of nationalistic fervour fuelled by the statements of nationalist politicians and right-wing media outlets.

There have been several protests against migrants in recent months. In the small city of Kazanluk, 230 kilometres east of Sofia, hundreds of people took the streets recently against alleged government plans to open a refugee camp there. Similar protests took place in Haskovo, where in the end a shelter was opened.

In November, in downtown Sofia, skinhead extremists beat up a Bulgarian Muslim who they misleadingly identified as a Syrian refugee. In the same month, several neo-Nazi factions, including the local branch of the international Blood and Honour skinhead network, formed the Nationalist Party of Bulgaria, dedicated to cleansing the country of “foreign and alien immigrant scum”.

A poll conducted in late September showed that 60 per cent of Bulgarians were afraid the criminality is to increase, while Syrian refugees were seen as a threat to national security. A new poll, in last December, showed that 62.2 per cent of Bulgarians do not want any more refugees coming to the country.

Verbal attacks have also come from politicians and right-wing media. In television appearances, Ataka Party MP Magdalena Tasheva has frequently called “cannibals” and “Islamic fundamentalists”, predicting they would soon “start raping and chopping heads off”.

At rallies in November, supporters of ultra-nationalist parties Ataka and VMRO called for the expulsion of immigrants and the closing of country’s borders.

“This extreme hate speech triggers xenophobia and poisons the environment for the refugees by spreading stereotypes,” the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee human-rights group said in a statement.

The Committee last month made a complaint to the Sofia prosecutor’s office against a VMRO leader for his critical speeches about refugees.

But the anti-immigration mood in Bulgarian society has not met with strong opposition.

Only around 200 people attended a candlelight vigil in Sofia in support of refugees’ rights. A few hundred more volunteered to help the delivery of food and clothes to refugee camps.

In the meantime, the Syrian refugees are facing a harsh winter. Their ordeal is to continue as the registration of their asylum claims can take up to a year. They have the right to stay in the dilapidated centres until their asylum cases are heard and possibly appealed, which can take up to three years.

Photos by Georgi Totev
Desislava Koleva is a Bulgarian journalist based in Sofia. This article was produced as part of a project funded by the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation.
07 Feb 14