By Clive Leviev – Sawyer of The Sofia Globe
Against a background of the Turkish-Bulgarian border being the main entry point into Bulgaria for Syrian refugees, the issue was discussed at a face-to-face meeting in Ankara between the Bulgarian and Turkish foreign ministers on October 26.
According to a statement by the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry, Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was told by Kristian Vigenin that the migration pressure resulting from the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the region was a topic concerning both Bulgaria and Turkey.
Unfortunately, the challenges were on the territories of both Bulgaria and Turkey and only through joint and co-ordinated action would significant results be achieved, the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry statement quoted Vigenin as telling Davutoğlu.
Bulgaria understood the difficult situation facing the Turkish government on that country’s border with Syria, but in spite of the efforts of both sides, the migration pressure on Bulgaria had acquired “alarming proportions”, prompting the Bulgarian government to decide to build a temporary fence at the common border in the most critical area, near the town of Elhovo.
According to the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry, Turkey expressed readiness to undertake joint initiatives to improve monitoring of the border and the migration pressure situation.
Also discussed at the meeting were the resumption of the work of the central joint Bulgarian-Turkish border commission in terms of the existing agreement between Bulgaria and Turkey on the prevention and resolution of border incidents.
A statement after the meeting by the Turkish foreign ministry said only that the meeting had assessed the issue of the humanitarian crisis in Syria and its impact on Turkey, Bulgaria and other countries, as well as the increased influx of refugees from Syria.
On October 27, Bulgarian media reported that in Sofia’s Ovcha Kupel residential area, there had been a brawl at a refugee centre between two families, one reportedly Lebanese and the other Syrian.
Police had intervened to prevent the situation escalating, according to the Interior Ministry.
Local media said that one person had been arrested. Several people were injured in the incident, according to Bulgarian media reports.
The incident allegedly began after Palestinian and Syrian children scuffled and a Syrian parent hit one of the children. This led to a clash between Syrians and Palestinians.
In Harmanli, the risk of epidemics at a refugee shelter had led to the Syrian community intervening and with the help of non-government organisations, the community had begun to hire hostels in Sofia, to which the majority of refugees would be moved from the caravans they are currently living in.
According to a report on October 27 by bTV, the living conditions at the refugee shelter in Harmanli were “far from comfortable”.
Refugees were being housed in military tents, there was no electricity and the about 400 refugees were eating dry food. There was an idea to set up a field kitchen to provide at least a hot meal “but apparently for now it is just an idea,” the report said.
“We fled from the war and fell into hell. We cannot continue to live under such conditions. Many children are ill,” refugee Hossam Ugdin told bTV.
With winter coming, there were fears that many people would fall ill, the report said.
On October 27, human rights watchdog the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) urged Bulgarian public officials to rethink their approach to the people seeking asylum in Bulgaria.
In an open letter to Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev, BHC chairperson Krassimir Kunev said that some intentions and actions of the government violated national and European Union legislation.
The BHC, which earlier issued a call for the government to resign because of its inadequate handling of the Syrian refugee issue, said that it believed that the Interior Ministry was violating the rights of refugees by providing the Syrian embassy with their fingerprints and biometric data.
This was a violation of Bulgarian and EU legislation, the BHC said.
The BHC also criticised the statements by Yovchev and Defence Minister Angel Naidenov about building refugee centres and a fence along the Bulgarian-Turkish border. The fence-building plan was populist and would be ineffective, the BHC said.
“We urge you to seriously reconsider your approach to asylum seekers in the country. Several thousand refugees, the vast majority of which are law-abiding people of working age, should not be a problem for Bulgaria, which during the transition lost close to two million of its population,” the BHC said in its open letter, a copy of which was sent to the UN High Commission for Refugees.
The BHC said that it was unacceptable for the Bulgarian authorities, when the country had ratified the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, to consciously perform actions that are not only contrary to the fundamental principles of protection and asylum but that also jeopardise and endanger the safety of asylum-seekers on its territory.
The way that laws were being breached was unacceptable and could expose Bulgaria to action in the European Court of Human Rights, the BHC said.
Tsvetan Tsvetanov, deputy leader of centre-right opposition party GERB and who was interior minister of Bulgaria from 2009 to March 2013, said that in the past five months there had been a “deficit” in the appropriateness of the approach to the refugee situation.
He said that GERB’s next motion of no confidence in the Bulgarian Socialist Party government would be on the grounds of the refugee crisis.
In the first three months, the current government “did not understand what it is about,” Tsvetanov said in a television interview.
“Nobody paid any attention to the danger. The State Agency for Refugees worked with 133 people between 2009 and 2013. This number of people cannot handle the documents in a such a short time. We are brought down by a lack of policy,” Tsvetanov said.
He said that during the GERB term of office in government, it had fulfilled its commitment to meeting the criteria for membership of the EU’s Schengen visa-free zone, part of which was building the necessary buildings to house refugees. By the time the GERB government left office, it had increased temporary accommodation for refugees by 267 per cent, or 3000 people, according to Tsvetanov.
He said that the idea of the border fence at the Bulgarian-Turkish border was “absolutely untenable”.
(Photo: Ben Melrose/V Photo Agency)