Bulgaria: the other refugee crisis

, by Nelly Tsekova

Bulgaria: the other refugee crisis

Since the beginning of the year, around 7,000 illegal immigrants have crossed the Bulgarian border, half of them from Syria. While the numbers are lower than for Italy, Spain or Greece, dealing with the influx is putting pressure on the country’s limited resources.

In the past, Bulgaria received, on average, 1,000 migrants and asylum seekers per year. So far this year, more than 7,000 people have arrived according to the latest figures, leaving officials scrambling to find housing and funds to accommodate them. Given the sharp increase in numbers, the government in Sofia fears an unstoppable wave. With limited resources, the country is finding it difficult to guard the southeastern border of the European Union. At the current rate, the Ministry of the interior estimates it will have received 11,000 to 15,000 by the end of the year (40% of the refugees registered are from Syria).

This unprecedented influx is in part due to the fact that smugglers who used to lead migrants from Turkey into Greece are now moving them to Bulgaria instead, because of the construction of a 10.5km fence at one of the most popular crossing points along the Turkish-Greek border. Smugglers have also tried to reach Bulgaria by sea: a vessel with 24 Afghans on board was intercepted near Cap Kaliakra on the Black Sea coast.

No capacity and experience

The accommodation capacity of Bulgaria’s refugee centers run by the State Agency for Refugees and the Ministry of Interior, which totals 4000 people, has long been exceeded. Bulgaria’s asylum system cannot keep pace with the new arrivals as around 100 new refugees arrive on average every day. Over 2, 000 refugees are accommodated in the three Sofia shelters – in the districts of Ovcha Kupel, Voenna Rampa and Vrazhdebna. The City Hall announced after an emergency sitting that the capital would no longer accept asylum seekers and would rather focus on improving the conditions in the shelters, which have been largely described as deplorable. Slow processing time for registering and processing asylum applications is also a setback which the agency has tried to overcome by expediting the process of granting refugee status and protection.

A number of non-governmental and charity organizations help the refugees in the Camps. There have been a number of campaigns initiated to assist the Syrian refugees in the country, including one by the Bulgarian Red Cross, while NGOs and individuals have launched campaigns online and via social networks such as Facebook. Bulgaria’s Muslim community contributed to a campaign organised by the Chief Mufti, spiritual leader of the community, to gather tons of foods and clothing to help Syrian refugees in the country (which eventually were refused by the refugees under the pretext that they need refugee status and not clothes). Tensions in the centers were inevitable with refugees protesting against the poor living conditions on offer. However, the newly refurbished centre in Vrajdebna had its furniture destroyed by the refugees living there.

EU reaction and assistance

EU justice ministers held talks in Luxembourg on October 8th on how to avoid Lampedusa-like tragedies, and how to cope with the rising number of Syrian refugees. Internal markets commissioner Michel Barnier said the EU needed to be prepared for the possibility of an even more massive influx: “the response surely should not be to close national borders, to shrink away or barricade ourselves. (…) Any crisis of this size affects us all and we must be ready in a spirit of great solidarity." Bulgarian European Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, whose portfolio embraces humanitarian aid and crisis response, said on October 20th that the EU would be granting “substantial” financial assistance to help the country cope with the refugee influx and would provide experts to help Bulgaria use the funds. Meanwhile, the Foreign ministers of Bulgaria and Turkey have agreed to create a joint border committee to manage the flux of refugees from war torn Syria.

The Schengen debate

Bulgaria, which has so far remained outside the Schengen area, also hoped that its efforts to guard the EU from the refugee influx would change mindsets and convince its opponents to let it join Schengen. However, lack of previous experience and low capacity to manage such large numbers have forced the country to ask for technical aid from the EU’s Frontex agency and the European Asylum Support Office.

“We are working to minimise the risks not only for Bulgaria but for the European Union also,” Minister of Interior Tsvetlin Yovchev told AFP in an interview, referring to the risks of the refugees slipping into other EU countries. “Yet, Bulgaria’s capacities are limited and we are nearing the point when we will no longer be able to manage these risks,” he said.” “We are using all possible channels to inform our partners from the EU and other international organisations that Bulgaria is falling into a crisis situation and needs aid.” He also pointed that Bulgaria’s role on the frontier of the EU should be rewarded by including it in the bloc’s visa-free Schengen travel area. According to Yovchev there are a number of problems that could arise because of the refugee influx. These included risks coming from people linked to terrorist organisations, health and social risks, including tensions with the local population, intolerance and xenophobia. Pressure on Bulgaria’s welfare system is also feared as people granted formal refugee status are entitled to the same benefits as other Bulgarians.

Moving towards a Common Migration and Asylum Policy?

Since 1999, the EU has been working to create a Common European Asylum System, which led to the set up of Frontex. At the core of the debate is who ultimately has responsibility for dealing with asylum seekers. Under current EU policy, known as the Dublin II Regulation, the country in which a person first arrived is responsible for dealing with asylum seekers, who can be sent back to their first port of destination if they are caught deeper into EU territory. The incessant influx of immigrants has been putting pressure on EU-border countries and fueled further the debate about burden-sharing and solidarity amongst member states. The EU needs to reach an internal compromise how to deal with this complex situation. They should strike the right balance between respect for basic human rights and guaranteeing the security of external EU borders.

Your comments
  • On 18 November 2013 at 02:59, by pete samuels Replying to: Bulgaria: the other refugee crisis

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