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Bulgaria's syrian refugee crisis

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PoliticsSyria Dossier

Bulgaria has received an unprecedented influx of refugees as a result of the conflict in Syria. Ill-prepared and yet to receive sufficient support from their EU neighbours, Bulgaria is struggling to cope. It seems to be a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire for Syrian families who left a conflict only to find themselves in the midst of a humanitarian crisis

‘We de­cided to go to Bul­garia, al­though we knew noth­ing about the coun­try. We didn’t know there were no jobs for the Bul­gar­i­ans or what they say about for­eign­ers here,’ says Ami, 20, a Syr­ian of Kur­dish back­ground who doesn’t want his real name to be used.

Ami and his fam­ily are housed in the Vrazdebna refugee re­cep­tion cen­tre in the Bul­gar­ian cap­i­tal of Sofia. Al­though the cen­tre has a ca­pac­ity of 310, it cur­rently hosts more than 400 asy­lum-seek­ers.

Ami’s mother makes us some tea and sits nearby with a wel­com­ing smile. There are 20 peo­ple sleep­ing in the room, two in each bed. In the cor­ner is a cook­ing area. Shoes are arranged in front of the door which has no han­dle but is in­stead held closed with string.

Bul­garia, one of the poor­est EU mem­ber states, has not tra­di­tion­ally been a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for asy­lum-seek­ers. How­ever, the coun­try has wit­nessed an un­prece­dented surge in refugees over the past few months.  The ma­jor­ity enter via Turkey, flee­ing the bloody con­flict in Syria.

More than 8, 000 asy­lum-seek­ers en­tered Bul­garia this year, com­pared to an av­er­age of 1, 000 in the past. The coun­try is not pre­pared to cope with such an in­flux and faces a chal­lenge to ad­e­quately ac­com­mo­date the refugees. Many live in squalid con­di­tions in im­pro­vised camps with­out reg­u­lar food, warmth or ac­cess to health care.

Ami and his fam­ily have been in Bul­garia since Sep­tem­ber after they il­le­gally crossed the Turk­ish-Bul­gar­ian bor­der at night. Ami em­barked on the gru­elling jour­ney with his par­ents, six broth­ers and sis­ters and his 70-year-old grand­mother. He feared she might not sur­vive the ‘dark for­est’ bor­der cross­ing.

Ami lived in the north­east­ern Syr­ian city of Qamishli where he stud­ied ge­o­log­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing. His sis­ter, who is sit­ting in the cor­ner with a text­book on her knees, stud­ied in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy whilst Ami’s brother stud­ied Eng­lish Philol­ogy. ‘We all want to con­tinue our stud­ies,’ Ami tells me.

He com­plains he is not used to show­er­ing so rarely. There are only a few boil­ers in the build­ing and more than a hun­dred peo­ple wait­ing for each. Ami re­cently started study­ing Bul­gar­ian. I ask him, ‘How are you?’ and he replies in Bul­gar­ian with a smile, ‘Not so good.’

Lat­ifa, 24, is a house­wife from Dam­as­cus. ‘Every­body loves me here,’ Lat­ifa tells me. With her cheer­ful tem­pera­ment and the kind­ness she shows to­wards the chil­dren and younger girls, she is the life and soul of the camp. Lat­ifa is here with her twins and her hus­band. She came through the same for­est as Ami with three other fam­i­lies. They paid $450 per per­son.

When she is not tak­ing care of her chil­dren, Lat­ifa spends every minute help­ing the mother of a one-week-old baby. The baby girl, born in a local hos­pi­tal, sleeps in a room which has been set aside as a nurs­ery. In con­trast with the other grey, over­crowded rooms, this space is cozy with bright col­ors and toys on the shelves. There are chil­dren run­ning all over the camp. There are cur­rently 2135 chil­dren liv­ing in Bul­gar­ian refugee cen­ters, many of whom are or­phans as a re­sult of the war.

In most camps there would be no sta­ble food sup­ply with­out the help of vol­un­teers. The refugees de­pend on do­na­tions or a €33 monthly sub­sidy. Some moth­ers’ breast milk has stopped be­cause of the stress. Or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Red Cross and Hu­man­i­tar­ian Help for the Refugees or­ga­nize do­na­tions with the help of a net­work of hun­dreds of vol­un­teers.

 ‘It’s tough be­cause the shel­ters are not suit­able and their ca­pac­ity has been sur­passed,’ says Sab­rina Trad, a vol­un­teer work­ing for Hu­man­i­tar­ian Help for the Refugees. ‘Some mea­sures have been taken to im­prove con­di­tions, but it’s hard be­cause the camps are full,’ says Sab­rina.

Bul­garia has never faced a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis like this

Half Bul­gar­ian, half Syr­ian, Sab­rina high­lights the provin­cial camps as the real prob­lem. One of them, a for­mer mil­i­tary base, is lo­cated in the south­east­ern city of Har­manli. In No­vem­ber 100 peo­ple threat­ened to go on hunger strike in protest at the camp’s liv­ing con­di­tions, where ap­prox­i­mately 1, 000 refugees are being held.  

Re­cently, Niko­lay Chirpan­liev, head of the Na­tional Agency for Refugees an­nounced 800 000 had been pledged by the EU, 817 320 by the Bul­gar­ian gov­ern­ment, 1 mil­lion from the Czech Re­public and $3.6 mil­lion from the UN High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees. Chirpan­liev promised to im­prove con­di­tions quickly.

Sab­rina’s brother, Rus­lan Trad, is a young Bul­gar­ian jour­nal­ist. He high­lights the fact that Bul­garia has never be­fore faced a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis on such a large scale. ‘It is im­por­tant for Bul­garia to re­spond to this sit­u­a­tion and deal with the po­lit­i­cal forces at work,’ says Rus­lan. ‘There will be more refugees com­ing. And there’s no suit­able places which can pro­vide de­cent liv­ing quar­ters. This could de­velop into a cri­sis,’ he adds.

Ac­cord­ing to ob­servers, na­tion­al­ist move­ments are tak­ing ad­van­tage of the sit­u­a­tion to build sup­port. In No­vem­ber, Volen Siderov, the leader of the na­tion­al­ist party, Ataka, called for Bul­garia to expel all il­le­gal im­mi­grants.

Rus­lan Trad says at­ti­tudes to­wards refugees in Bul­garia are di­ver­gent. He sug­gests that al­though the ma­jor­ity of Bul­gar­i­ans seem to be neg­a­tively dis­posed to­wards refugees, there are ‘dozens of vol­un­teers who de­vote time and re­sources to sup­port them.’

Ami’s fam­ily is await­ing a de­ci­sion on their refugee sta­tus which should come in the next few months. They don’t know if any­one in the camp has been granted of­fi­cial refugee sta­tus. In truth, very few have and it’s not some­thing they want to shout about.

The refugees find them­selves trapped in a strange limbo. ‘Every month here is like a year. Time passes slowly,’ says Ami. ‘We don’t want to go back to liv­ing in awful con­di­tions, so West­ern Eu­rope is a bet­ter place to go.’ Asked about the fu­ture Lat­ifa says all she wants is a ‘good life’. Ami will not be mak­ing it to West­ern Eu­rope and Lat­ifa will not have her ‘good life’ until the EU comes to terms with what is rapidly grow­ing into a refugee cri­sis.

This article is part of Cafébabel's 2014 series on Syria. The rest of the articles are currently being translated and will soon be available in English.