By Clive Leviev-Sawyer of the Sofia Globe
An influx of asylum seekers from Syria into Bulgaria has exacerbated border security challenges, raised interethnic tensions, and challenged underfunded state agencies and there are concerns that this flow of people could allow some foreign fighters to transit in and out of Bulgaria, according to a report by the United State state department.
The remarks were contained in the state department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2013, submitted by the department to the US Congress.
The report said that Bulgaria is slated to receive the equivalent of more than $7 million in aid from the EU specifically earmarked to assist with the influx of asylum seekers.
The US, in concert with other regional partners, has maintained a regular dialogue with the Bulgarian government to assess and manage this risk, the report said.
The release of the report coincided with the issue of Syrian refugees returning to the headlines in Bulgaria because of a xenophobic and racist incident in the village of Rosovo, where residents pressured a newly-arrived group of three families of Syrian refugees to leave.
The refugees, who have formal legal status as such, instead received a hospitable welcome at another village, Krun, while the government – strongly criticised by the opposition for failing to cope adequately with the refugee issue in several regards – has said that it would look into what happened in Rosovo.
Simultaneously, the Bulgarian Socialist Party government and various state and local institutions dealing with refugees were stung by a Human Rights Watch report alleging serious abuses in dealing with Syrian refugees. The government and other bodies, including the Bulgarian Red Cross, have criticised the Human Rights Watch report as inaccurate.
The US state department report also noted that in 2013, Bulgaria continued its investigation into the 2012 airport bus bombing in Bourgas.
US law enforcement and the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior have co-operated on the ongoing investigation into the 2012 bus bombing in Bourgas, in which five Israelis, a Bulgarian and a terrorist died, and which – initial investigations indicate – was perpetrated by individuals affiliated with Lebanese Hezbollah.
In July, the Prosecutor General’s office invited Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) bomb technicians to Bulgaria to review the evidence, including photos, material, and a video re-creation of the event. The team, which arrived in October 2013, praised Bulgaria’s co-operation and the high quality of the re-creation, the report said.
The US state department report also implicitly criticised recent restructuring of law enforcement under the current government.
The report said that law enforcement co-operation between US agencies and their Bulgarian counterparts has historically been strong.
“However, the government has reshuffled and reorganized key police units, with the resulting reassignment of personnel and imposition of new rules slowing joint casework.”
The Interior Ministry continued to host operational units responsible for deterring, detecting, and responding to incidents, including the Specialized Unit for Combatting Terrorism, Security Police, and Special Police Forces. Specialized law enforcement units were properly equipped and supported with relevant training.
The state department provided Regional Strategic Initiative funding for training to Bulgarian law enforcement in a variety of areas including counterterrorism investigations and explosive countermeasures, the report said.