By Clive Leviev – Sawyer of The Sofia Globe
Tsvetlin Yovchev, interior minister in the Bulgarian Socialist Party government, inspected the country’s border with Turkey on November 15 to assess progress in stemming the influx of refugees.
Bulgaria, meanwhile, continues to come under criticism for its handling of the refugee issue, not only for conditions in refugee shelters, but also for proposed legislative amendments already approved by the cabinet and for xenophobia and intertolerance among far-right groups towards refugees.
The country’s authorities are claiming that the deployment of police that began on November 11 has led to a reduction in the numbers of people illegally entering Bulgaria.
An Interior Ministry statement on November 15 said that in the 24 hours before dawn, Border Police had found a total of four Syrian citizens. Over the same period, eight cases of illegal crossing by 59 people had been prevented.
Departing from the practice of previous weeks, the statement did not specify how many people were in State Agency for Refugees shelter and those of the Interior Ministry, nor what the overcrowding situation was.
On November 14, there was a protest at the refugee shelter in the Ovcha Kupel residential area of capital city Sofia as applicants for formal refugee status embarked on passive resistance because of unhappiness at the slowness of the processing of their applications.
There were no violent incidents but a refugee identifying himself as Ali told local television station bTV that they had been threatened with force by police. He complained that attitudes towards them in Bulgaria were “as if they were not people”.
The same day, the European Commission rejected in advance one of the main points in the long-awaited “action plan” by the current Bulgarian government – the placement of migrants in closed detention centres.
Yovchev earlier introduced the measure by saying that a European directive allowed the holding of people with refugee status or awaiting such and who are considered potentially risky, for example because they have criminal records.
But this claim was slapped down by the European Commission, which said that the Bulgarian government’s interpretation of the directive was wrong. Migrants and refugees should be housed only in decent and humane conditions, the EC said.
Bulgaria already has plans to build such a detention centre, in the village of Tellish, which as a result has been the scene of several days of protests by residents.
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom’s office said that there were unused funds for building accommodation for refugees.
Meanwhile, the roundabout of mixed messages from Bulgarian government officials about what sum of money Bulgaria would get from the EU to assist it in the refugee situation also continued.
Zinaida Zlatanova, one of the BSP government’s deputy prime ministers, said that the government expected support of 90 million euro, a claim that remains unsubstantiated (and that caused some astonishment) and that was contradicted on November 15 when Kristian Vigenin, foreign minister, said in Parliament in reply to a question that Bulgaria would get less than 10 million euro.
The EC also criticised Bulgaria’s terminology, saying that it was EU policy to refer to “irregular migrants” while Bulgaria called them illegal migrants. Malmstroms spokesperson said that the commissioner’s view was that no person was illegal.
The Commission also called on Bulgaria to oppose anti-immigrant propaganda.
There have been incidents of violence against foreign migrants and controversy has been stirred by extremist far-right vigilantes seeking to set up illegal street patrols in Sofia in areas where migrants are concentrated. Earlier this week, Bulgaria’s president and prime minister issued a joint statement calling for tolerance of the refugees.
As to the situation of refugees and asylum-seekers, on November 14 the Amnesty International website posted an article by Barbora Černušáková, EU team researcher, and Giorgos Kosmopoulos, EU team campaigner, currently on a mission in Bulgaria.
The article is reproduced below:
“More than a week ago we arrived to the eastern border of the European Union, Bulgaria. Since August we have been receiving alarming news and distress calls from refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants trying to reach the country.
More than 10,000 people have entered Bulgaria so far this year, a dramatic rise over 2012 .
Our first destination was Busmantsi, a cold and overcrowded detention centre in the outskirts of Sofia where hundreds of men, women and children – even unaccompanied minors – are often unnecessarily deprived of their liberty. The next stop was the town of Elhovo on the Turkish-Bulgarian border.
This little town alone has two detention facilities. In a custody centre run by Elhovo border police, we found hundreds of newly arrived refugees and witnessed how they are been greeted by the EU. Here, dozens of families with children and babies are being hosted in a makeshift reception facility – a basketball court really – sleeping rough, in squalid conditions and lacking basic necessities.
“Fights break out among people here over a dirty blanket,” said M. from Iran. “We don’t know what will happen to us,” he continued.
Another man at the centre, Mamdoa, was in the second-year of his university studies when the war in Syria broke out. He eventually had to leave his country and made his way through Turkey. After crossing the border into Bulgaria, he applied for asylum in Elhovo.
A few days later we met Mamdoa again, this time in a refugee camp in Harmanli. Officially, the camp is labelled as an “accommodation centre”. In reality it’s a former military complex. Behind a guarded, heavy iron gate with a sign bearing a lion are rows of red and white cargo containers, each holding up to two families. As we walked deeper into the camp, the smell of smoke began to fill the air and we were astonished to see dozens of green army tents hosting men, women, families with children and even babies. We realized that people have to burn wood they collect from the nearby trees to keep themselves warm and to cook. Potatoes are all many of them can afford, apart from bread and sugar.
In one of the tents we met Malalai, a young girl from Afghanistan. A linguist by profession, she speaks English well, and talks confidently. Next to her sat her father, who spent 25 years trying to make their home country a safer place. He was a deminer in Afghan minefields until the Taliban threatened him, to coerce him to work for them. At the same time, a Taliban fighter insisted that Malalai marry him. She and her father refused and the family was forced to move several times to escape death threats. Eventually they had to flee Afghanistan.
“We were proud to work for our country,” said Malalai who is now trapped thanks to Bulgaria’s ineffective asylum system. “What are human rights? I learned that human rights mean respect but in here I think everything is a lie … There is no ear to hear, no mind to understand and no heart to feel. “
We witnessed the hardships people in Harmanli have to endure. The camp has only eight showers for a thousand people and appalling hygiene conditions. Strapped for cash, they need to pay for their food and provisions, and are dreading the onset of winter.
Harmanli is the biggest out of five “reception centres” for refugees in Bulgaria. The government has hastily put some of these centres back in use after they have lain vacant in a dilapidated state for years.
Yesterday morning we met the Deputy Minister of Interior, Plamen Angelov, who acknowledged the serious shortcomings and described their efforts as a race against time. Whether unprepared or unwilling, the authorities have been ignoring the signs for far too long. Politicians, including government ministers, have been feeding into the latest xenophobic rhetoric in the country.
In the past week alone, three people perceived as migrants were attacked by far-right extremists, and one ended up in a coma.
We have just called a refugee we met few days ago to let him know of the whereabouts of his friends and that they are safe. He sounds happy: “All is good,” he says “all is good.”
We can’t help but wonder, is it really?”