SOFIA, Bulgaria — Ongoing conflicts in the Middle East have caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes in desperation to find safe refuge. As a result, several neighboring countries in the Middle East have taken on these refugees and provided them with a temporary haven. However one less than obvious country has also been struggling with the influx of refugees: Bulgaria.
In 2013, Bulgaria had at least 11,500 refugees illegally pour over their border from their neighbor, Turkey. The refugees in Bulgaria have primarily been Kurds of Syrian descent. This massive influx quickly caused an overflow in Bulgaria’s ill-prepared refugee camps. A lack of electricity, water and medical care at many locations has drawn negative attention and criticism from around the globe.
However, since then conditions have gotten better. Around $9 million in funds, mostly taken from the EU, have been put toward expanding and renovating existing refugee camps. This has increased overall capacity from 1,230 to 6,000.
Recently Bulgaria has seen the total number of incoming refugees decrease, however there are some fears that there may be another increase in refugees thanks to the recent intense conflicts taking place in the region. Despite these fears, the current decrease in refugees has allowed for the processing of refugee status to speed up. As is typical with most requests for refugee status, the intricacies in the application process have caused radically different fates for refugees depending on what status they receive.
Those gaining asylum and/or full refugee status can travel within the EU for up to three months. As a result, the majority of those receiving this status immediately go to Western Europe, where there are better prospects for receiving a well paying job.
Those who receive humanitarian protection, however, can only leave Bulgaria with a visa. Naturally the Bulgarian government is very reluctant to hand out visas, which means that they are stuck in Bulgaria. As of this writing, 2,765 people have received refugee status, while 1,635 were granted humanitarian status. 25 percent of those who have a humanitarian status are entirely dependent on state facilities.
It is extremely difficult to break out of the system and not rely solely on state funds and aid, largely due to the harsh economy, language barriers and lackluster and underfunded reintegration program. The most recent reintegration program was designed prior to the influx of Syrian refugees and expired last December. It has yet to be renewed.
Efforts have been taken by the U.N. Refugee Agency and other NGOs to provide some help, but obviously this support cannot be expected to work as a long-term, sustainable solution.
The problems of Bulgaria’s status as the poorest country in the EU combined with the massive influx of refugees mean that the current system that cannot support such numbers, and a practically nonexistent reintegration program has led to an overall bad situation for refugees as Bulgaria struggles to handle the numbers.
A representative for the UNHCR, Roland Francois-Weil, explained that even those who want to stay in Bulgaria do not have the support they need. As he explained: “For these people, Bulgaria is the place where in principle they will have to stay because they can’t go anywhere else. But many of them are still in the centres, living on the assistance that is provided to them by the state. This is not a solution.”
The key to success lies in helping immigrants become self-reliant. The only way to do that is by offering a sustainable solution through an effective integration program for those who remain in the country. Otherwise refugees in the country will remain dependent on the state, and the cycle of poverty will be near impossible to break.
– Andre Gobbo