Comment: Bulgaria and polarisation over the Syrian refugees

Comment: Bulgaria and polarisation over the Syrian refugees


By Clive Leviev – Sawyer of The Sofia Globe

In a country that the autumn of 2013 finds quite as deeply divided over almost every issue, perhaps it is hardly surprising – if deeply disappointing – that the question of the influx of Syrian refugees is proving divisive too.

According to the most recent Interior Ministry figures, as of this writing Bulgaria is now the unbidden host to more than 7000 refugees.

That figure takes in those who have entered, mostly illegally, from a range of countries also including Afghanistan, Iraq and other troubled states in the Middle East and North Africa. But the story of the day is about those fleeing Syria, and the vastly fatal violence wrought by the Assad regime and those who oppose it.

Globally, the figures coming out of the Syrian crisis are mind-boggling to most, even those who recall the tragically awful numbers of the disruption to human lives in recent memory, in the former Yugoslavia and the sickening slaughterhouse that was Rwanda; and that is not to delve further deep into 20th century history, not only the unimaginable crime of the Holocaust but also the aftermath of World War 2, for which the term “displaced person” was invented in Europe.

Arguably, in the grand scheme of things, the Syrian refugee impact on Bulgaria is not that extensive. Certainly, not compared to that on Syria’s immediate neighbours, and probably, not in comparison to those places that for years have been – literally – on the receiving end of large numbers of refugees, notably Greece and Italy.

Greece, understandably, long since decided on a wall along the Turkish border, not without controversy. Greece called in the help of Frontex, and like Italy, time and again sought to attract the attention of the full scale of the European Union to come up with a sustainable, practical and defensible response to the influx of refugees.

In the context of the influx into Greece, Bulgarian officials on secondment to assist the Frontex effort got some idea, presumably, of what it means to try to cope with a regular flow of illegal migrants, in this case specifically along a border with Turkey which seems notably porous.

One might think that this experience may have alerted Bulgaria’s authorities to the notion that one day too Sofia might find itself trying to cope with the same syndrome.

But, as it turned out, Sofia had no real plan, no document to take out of the safe and dust off to deal with the scenario of a sudden inflow of people seeking safety.

In short, notwithstanding the warnings that it has had – including from those foreign policy experts who warned that unless there was a sustainable political solution to the problem of the Assad regime, Europe would face the human consequences – Bulgaria has been caught flat-footed.

It appears that no previous government, of whatever political persuasion, of recent times drafted a sensible plan, or even thought to draft one. It is clear that the current government is operating on a crisis management, make-it-up-as-you-go-along, basis.

The current government is seeking EU aid and whatever other aid it can find. Faced with facilities that overflow, and then finding new ones, and then seeing these overflow, it seems only capable of uttering numbers about the refugee influx, and then moving on to the next day of crisis management.

This makes it vulnerable. From the far-right, not only Volen Siderov’s ultra-nationalists Ataka but also Ataka’s bitter rivals, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, have come calls to seal the borders and admit no one.

In a failed motion in Parliament on October 9, Ataka called for the closing of Bulgaria’s borders not only to Syrian refugees, but also to everyone from the Middle East and North Africa. To the credit of Bulgaria’s otherwise utterly discredited 42nd National Assembly, the motion fortunately was defeated, and overwhelmingly so.

But for those familiar with Bulgarian politics, this will not stop Ataka and its ilk from portraying the flow of refugees as a fifth column of Islamic terrorists.

The media has been divided too. In a country which lacks media capable of quality reporting from Bulgaria, some media have been particularly hostile – seizing, as newspapers in this past week have done – on tales of Syrian refugees discarding donated clothing because it was, allegedly, not good enough for them. Nor have the media, in some cases more than others, failed to report the opinion of every talking head prepared to suggest that those coming to Bulgaria are, at worst, the bearers of violent Jihad, at best, a drain on an already overstrained social assistance system.

Speaking to local media, Bulgarian Red Cross head Hristo Grigorov said that some Bulgarians had challenged him as to why the country was helping foreign refugees “when we are refugees in this country”, unemployed, suffering hard times.

Voices of reason have pointed out that Bulgaria is a party to international conventions on the treatment of refugees, and that closing its border with Turkey would be out of kilter with its obligations as an EU outer border.

Those are legalistic arguments. For other Bulgarians, those who have donated money and clothing to official campaigns, those who have organised campaigns via Facebook, those Muslims who have supported the campaign organised the campaign set up by the Chief Mufti, those who applaud the Bulgarian Orthodox Church for opening the doors of two of its newly-renovated monasteries to Syrian refugees, it is a matter of simple humanity, of the traditions of Balkan hospitality.

But for others, in politics and the media, it is a matter of fear, of hatred, of suspicion of the Other.

And in a country so deeply divided, perhaps this is the state of affairs that is doomed to be. A country of two Bulgarias – one welcoming, including those who got together a collection of hummus because they decided that Syrians liked it too – the other Bulgaria, fearful, suspicious, intolerant of outsiders, especially those of the Muslim faith, given Bulgaria’s traumatic folk memories of Ottoman rule.

Or perhaps, arguably worse, for the politicians selling the latter poison, these fears are the vote-getters, and for those in the media who hawk the same story, it is a matter of comfortable prejudice for those readers who have a taste for it.