HARMANLI, Bulgaria — Refugees fleeing the war-torn Syria for Bulgaria–hoping to reach safety–have been dismayed to find conditions in the EU’s poorest country are not much better than at home. Although the 11,000 asylum seekers who expected to reach Bulgaria by the end of the year pale in comparison to the millions flooding Syria’s neighboring countries, the influx has overwhelmed the unprepared country, resulting in dismal conditions at makeshift refugee camps and few answers for those wondering what is next.
Bulgaria’s three refugee facilities were quickly overfilled, leading to the use of dilapidated former schools and army camps to house those who continue to pour into the country.
The Harmanli camp, one of the largest, is home to more than 1,000 asylum seekers living in metal containers, leaky tents and abandoned structures at a former military complex. The camp has only three toilets and eight showers, all of which have become so filthy that people refuse to use them. The refugees lack treatment for chronic illnesses and even simple medications for basic care. Many have taken to stripping wood from buildings to make fires for heat to guard against the snow and cold. Most are subsisting on what rice, bread and potatoes they can afford, as the Bulgarian government has yet to provide food assistance. No one is permitted to leave the camp except to buy food. Alarmingly, the camp–despite its size–has no one assigned to handle asylum claims for its residents.
Bulgaria has responded to the influx of refugees, notably referred to them as “illegal immigrants” by some sources, with plans to build a 21-mile long, three-meter tall fence in Elhovo, a region bordering Turkey where an estimated 85 percent of Syrian refugees are entering the country.
Officials call it a “temporary engineering installation,” saying it is meant to redirect refugees to official border checkpoints.
The UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, warns that this move is counterproductive and may cause people to resort to dangerous methods of crossing. It may also further place them at the mercy of smugglers.
Tihomir Bezlov at the Centre for the Study of Democracy in Sofia echoed these sentiments.
“The main problem is that a wall cannot stop people who are ready to do anything,” Bezlov said.
In another move strongly criticized by the UNHCR, the Bulgarian government has sent hundreds of refugees back to Syria in the past few weeks. Additionally, Bulgaria’s interior ministry has sent several thousand police officers and soldiers to patrol the Turkish border, equipped with thermal imaging cameras to catch and stop those trying to bypass border posts.
Next, the country plans to build “accommodation centers of the closed type”–what many are calling a euphemism for prisons–to house refugees.
Defense Minister Angel Naydenov reported that the extra patrols had already reduced the number of asylum-seekers making it through to Bulgaria.
Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev told reporters last Thursday that he has “absolute confidence that we will manage to contain the refugee crisis in all aspects.”
The efforts to block Syrian refugees from reaching the country, as opposed to offering assistance by granting asylum, may be rooted in more than the country’s economic struggles.
The influx of Syrian refugees has ignited xenophobia in the country that threatens to impede progress in assisting them. Far-right parties are on the rise; support for Ataka, an ultranationalist party, has doubled in the past two months, and a new nationalist party promising to “clean up the country of this scum, these immigrants” was founded.
There have been increased instances of stabbings and beatings of Syrians, and a recent poll found that 83 percent of Bulgarians consider the influx of Syrian immigrants as a national security risk.
The EU’s decision last Friday to grant 5.6 million Euros ($7.6 million) in emergency aid to Bulgaria to improve conditions for refugees offers some hope, but other measures must be taken to alleviate the suffering. Inhumane conditions in the refugee camps must be improved, but long-term solutions for the masses of displaced people must also be sought.
With the exception of Germany and Sweden, who have promised to grant permanent residence to any Syrian who reaches them, the EU states are maintaining tight asylum-granting policies in the face of the crisis. Donate to Amnesty International or the UNCHR, two groups fighting for asylum rights for the Syrians, to do your part in ending the crisis.
– Sarah Morrison