Comment: Bulgarian authorities flounder to regain initiative on refugee issue

Comment: Bulgarian authorities flounder to regain initiative on refugee issue


Clive Leviev – Sawyer of The Sofia Globe

When it comes to the refugee issue, Bulgaria’s government increasingly resembles some sort of frenetic Keystone Kops knockabout in the guard’s van as the engine steams on relentlessly with someone else driving the train.

That someone else, it seems, is the country’s ultra-nationalist groupings, who are stoking the fires as hard as they can, shovelling in illegal migrants from the Middle East and North Africa as their political fuel.

This past weekend, ultra-nationalist Volen Siderov said that his Ataka party would bring about the “painful” downfall of the current government if it did not meet his demands about the refugee situation – these demands being the expulsion of all illegal migrants and the closing of Bulgaria’s border with Turkey.

Apart from these demanded actions being of seriously questionable legality, constitutionality and practicality, a further question is whether Siderov genuinely intends to carry out such a threat or whether this was just another blast of hot air from Siderov’s otherwise empty furnace.

Either way, the government has been acting (whether in the theatrical sense or no it may be premature to say) to keep illegal migrants from entering or even finding the speediest possible ways to expel those that international law would permit it to.

Leaving aside momentarily the question of how trustworthy the official figures issued by the Bulgarian government may be, it seems that there are by now several thousand illegal migrants in the country, especially after the heightened influx resulting from the crisis in Syria.

Against a background of ultra-nationalists seeking to generate hysteria about these numbers of illegal migrants concealing within them a fifth column of terrorists, the current government has been at pains to show itself to be checking newcomers for suspicious connections.

There have been recent announcements about some being expelled for alleged terrorist links. The proportions of those said to have such links make up a significantly small number of the whole.

But, in turn, the government in Sofia ran up against a further problem – that the countries to which such nationals could theoretically be returned declined to accept them, apparently on the grounds of policies of not accepting charter flights.

In a bid to legislate its way out of the situation, the Bulgarian government reportedly intends changing the law so that those being expelled will be issued with a newfangled document called a “departure certificate” (in effect, a form of exit permit) when the embassies of the countries of these nationals decline to issue them with temporary passports.

The new provision of the “departure certificate” will be created by amending the regulations implementing the Foreigners Act, a move that the government can carry out solely with Cabinet assent without taking the matter to Parliament.

Practically how this will work is not yet clear. Perhaps the assumption is that the new approach will enable Sofia to force people out via the departure terminals of its airports, with what happens once those being expelled are out of Bulgarian airspace and at the entrance gates of someone else’s airport being a matter to be resolved by the other country.

The bumpy approach amid this turbulence has been reminiscent of another area regarding the refugee issue, the Bulgarian government running to the European Union for assistance – notably in the form of money. For days, various people within the ruling party and the structures of power came up with sometimes wildly varying estimates of just how much money Bulgaria would get from the EU to help it cope with the refugee situation. Sofia, amid the hysteria generated by some politicians and media, also seemed deaf to the subtle commentaries by people such as its own European Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva – whose portfolio is humanitarian aid and crisis response – that in the general scheme of the EU, the influx of refugees to Bulgaria was relatively small.

Another area of the refugee issue where the Bulgarian government has appeared to be on the backfoot has been the establishment of so-called “civilian patrols” by ultra-nationalist groups that are even more fringe than Ataka.

The appearance of these groups of short-haired young men, clad in black jackets, jeans and sporting armbands based on the Bulgarian flag, caused uproar on social networks among somewhat more tolerant and liberal circles in the country.

Even though there were allegations (subsequently denied) that the groups were stopping people in the street and demanding to see identification documents, an unquestionable breach of the law, for weeks the approach of the police has been softly-softly, to say the least.

The “civilian patrols”, after the initial flurry of controversy, tried to portray themselves as a form of neighbourhood watch, out in groups at night in central Sofia where there are concentrations of migrants, supposedly with their eyes peeled for breaches of the law by the foreigners.

Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandukova, a second-term incumbent on the ticket of the centre-right party that is in opposition at national level to the Bulgarian Socialist Party-Movement for Rights and Freedoms-Ataka ruling axis, made known her objections to these groups patrolling the streets of the capital, but it has taken more than two weeks for any definitive statement to come from national level.

That statement came on November 25, and that after proposed amendments to the Interior Ministry Act meanwhile were interpreted by critics as seeking to legitimise the “civilian patrols” – a charge denied in the past few days by the ministry itself.

On November 25, a joint statement by the Prosecutor’s Office, State Agency for National Security and the Interior Ministry said that they would not allow any “formations”, “self-defence units” or “civilian patrols” to operate in the city.

The statement came after the heads of these bodies said that they had analysed the latest data on the course of investigations into offences against Bulgarian nationals by resident foreign citizens as well as attacks on foreigners committed with racist and xenophobic motives.

According to the statement, at the request of Prosecutor-General Sotir Tsatsarov, in certain parts of the centre of the city, police presence will be stepped up and police will “exercise their powers without any compromise”.

The statement indicated that it would not be allowed for people to attempt to “impose order” on the streets of the capital, and neither would there be tolerance for people “openly demonstrating such behaviour, including by wearing badges”.

The three institutions said that they would use all their legal powers “to esnure the preservation of public order and the protection of citizens’ rights”.

The statement also came against a background of Roma groups reportedly intending to set up their own “counter-patrols” to those of the ultra-nationalists. The development almost seems to suggest that the notion of clashes on the streets of Sofia between short-haired ultra-nationalists and Roma groups was the unpleasant picture that finally focused governmental minds.

The statement has an interesting poignance against a background of earlier remarks from ultra-nationalist quarters that no one could legally prevent groups of Bulgarian citizens walking around on Bulgarian streets.

Even allowing for the notion that such groups could be prevented from wearing “badges”, it remains unclear whether the new rules and police presence genuinely will prevent such patrols. At this writing, and far from wanting to defend in any way such groups, it does seem to remain an important legal moot point – on what grounds do you tell Bulgarians that they cannot walk around in Bulgaria?

So far, the closest thing there has been to police intervention has been police warning such patrols not to break the law, recording the identity details of participants, and allowing them to move on. How the new rules will change this remains to be seen, however much those opposed to such activities – some of whom have pointedly posted on social networks photographs of early 1930s Nazi and Brownshirt “street patrols” – may wish them gone.

But it may just prove that the response by the authorities to the street patrol problem may be very similar in principle to the current government’s response to the refugee situation – chaotic, hasty and not fully thought through.