19 Nov 2013

No turning back for Bulgaria's 5,000 Syrian refugees

We arrived in Harmanli at sunset to find refugees sitting round camp fires, trying to keep warm beneath thick palls of wood smoke. Over 1,000 Syrians live here in a facility built for 400. When we visited, there was no electricity, running water or central heating in what is surely the worst refugee housing provided by any European country.

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There aren’t enough prefabricated huts, so refugee families are now living under canvas in Bulgarian army tents. Whatever the horrors of war they left behind, nothing can have prepared them for a European welcome as warm as this.

“They treat us like crap,” said Jazia al-Daim, a former teacher, who shares her tent with three families. She had sold the ring her father gave her to pay smugglers to spirit her across the border from Turkey. “I thought life would be better here, but I was wrong.”

Would you go back if you could, I asked her? “Yes, I would prefer Syria,” she said. “I would choose war.”


One euro a day

The number of Syrians seeking asylum in Europe has doubled in the last year, while the numbers crossing into Bulgaria are up 10 times on last year’s figure.

In Harmanli, most are Kurds from Qamishli, in northern Syria, paying smugglers around 300 euros each to help them make the five- to 10-hour walk from Turkey into Europe.

It can take up to a month to be registered as a refugee in Bulgaria. We were told there were just three officials to process applications and take fingerprints from the many hundreds housed in two refugee camps.

Once processed, refugees receive the equivalent of one euro a day each with which to feed themselves. It can then take three years for asylum to be granted.

Refugees have two options: wait for that asylum in appalling conditions, including no schools for their children; or smuggle themselves further into western Europe, with Sweden and Germany apparently the most popular destinations.

Jihadist intimidation

The Bulgarian border police took us in Land Rovers along the muddy and forested hillside tracks which separate them from Turkey. There is no fence, though the Bulgarians have started building one. The police showed us footage from their night vision cameras, which allow them to spot and ambush new arrivals in the middle of the night.

The Turks often turn a blind eye to those departing. Once they get to Bulgaria, Syrian refugees often want to be caught: they don’t have enough money to carry on smuggling themselves across the length and breadth of Europe.

The police reckon a fence built by the Greeks has diverted some of the human traffic to Bulgaria, while crossing the Mediterranean has become notoriously dangerous. The rise in refugee numbers also coincides with intimidation by increasingly powerful jihadist groups in Syria and fighting between rival Kurdish groups, as well as continuing attacks by government warplanes and the use of chemical weapons in August.

Call for help

As I stood at the border, watching a large Turkish flag fluttering on the other side, it struck me that Turkey has taken in upwards of half a million Syrian refugees, while the UNHCR reckons Bulgaria is currently housing only about 5,000. Yet one of the poorest and smallest countries in the EU claims it cannot cope unless the rest of Europe helps carry the human and financial burden.

For months now, the UNHCR has described refugee conditions as overcrowded, unsafe and “dire”. Bulgaria’s deputy interior minister, Vasil Marinov, told me his government relied on “EU solidarity” and had applied for more than 8m euros of EU aid. It may help his cause that the EU’s humanitarian aid commissioner happens to be Bulgarian herself.

An illegal Algerian migrant was recently caught in Bulgaria after allegedly stabbing a local girl, adding to an increasingly xenophobic atmosphere. Crowds have taken to the streets, demanding that the border should be sealed shut, and refugees now live with the constant threat of racial violence.


Too frightened to play outside

In a hospital we found the brothers and sisters of 17-year-old Ali from Aleppo, comforting him after he had been punched and stabbed on the edge of their refugee camp.

Ali’s family live in a derelict school, 15 of them sleeping in one small room. They say their home was bombed by Syrian jets. So they crossed into Turkey, carrying Ali’s elderly grandmother for much of their six-hour trek to Europe.

“We had four rooms downstairs and four rooms upstairs,” Safar, Ali’s mother, told me with a mixture of pride and sadness in her voice. “Our home was a two-storey building. At least the children can sleep here because they cannot hear the sound of bombing and warplanes.”

The other children are too frightened to join those playing outside the school building, even though it is guarded by Bulgarian police, so they play in the corridors which double up as dormitories.

Ten Syrian families live in each classroom, their living spaces delineated by white sheets hanging from poles made of tree branches. There is no laundry area, no kitchen either, not even a sink to wash the dishes – even though EU law demands a dignified standard of living for refugees.

“Bulgarians are poor,” one woman told me. “They cannot be expected to help us. Other nations should.”

Doing ‘the impossible’

The camp’s Bulgarian commandant is a retired army colonel called Pepy Dzurenov, who complains that there are no doctors, though ambulances visit several times a day to carry off the sick.

“When a family with five to 10 children arrives at midnight and they don’t have anywhere to sleep, I force myself to do the impossible and accommodate them,” the commandant said.

The Bulgarians deny keeping conditions deliberately awful as a ploy to deter more Syrians from coming here. Though it is perfectly clear that they are now hoping to turn their chronic lack of preparedness into more financial help from the rest of “Fortress Europe”.

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14 reader comments

  1. Anne says:

    Well done Channel 4 for reporting on this.
    I think we Europeans need to show a little more compassion towards the victims of war.

  2. Armin Theissen says:

    Its not quite fair to put Bulgaria into a bad light, because Bulgaria *is* poor. Taking care of refugees should be a EU-wide responsibility.

  3. quietoaktree says:

    “EU solidarity” and “Fortress Europe” are terms used with ease by many concerned. The former has been misused by Greece and Greeks for not receiving 100´s of Billions of Euros as an EU ´gift´, the latter to describe Nazi occupied Europe.


    In Germany,currently asylum seekers are paid €346 per month and are allowed to earn a maximum of €100 before deductions. 100,000 are expected this year.

    In Britain, ´the majority of asylum seekers do not have the right to work in the United Kingdom and so must rely on state support. Housing is provided, but asylum seekers cannot choose where it is, and it is often ‘hard to let’ properties which Council tenants do not want to live in. Cash support is available, and is currently set at £36.62 per person, per week, which makes it £5.23 a day for food, sanitation and clothing. By comparison, the UK received 23,499 new applications for asylum in the year ending June 2013.´

    — I presume the UK was also included in the ” EU solidarity” and ” Fortress Europe” — without actually mentioning it ?

  4. Angela Page says:

    I would like to see the EU taking more responsibility for refugees.
    I wish Britain would take the lead in giving more of them the chance of a better life. In 2012 there were 21,785 applications for asylum, an increase of 10%, while in 2011 there were 355 applications from Syria compared with 992 in 2012, an increase of 179%. In 2012 there were 16,918 decisions on refugees overall, including 10,853 refusals, 5,139 granted refugee status,88 humanitarian protection & 86 family or private life.
    Figures – there are many more – obtained from ww.refugeecouncil.org.uk British Refugee Council, (commonly called the Refugee Council) PO Box 68614 London E159DQ UK

  5. Alan says:

    This is essentially an Arab world problem, not a European one. There are some fabulously rich countries in the Arab world sitting on huge cash piles while most of Europe is in the grip of either austerity or actual poverty.
    Sad though it is to see these unfortunate people suffer, Arabs are causing the problem and it is for Arabs to sort it out and help them.

  6. Fed up Taxpayer says:

    80,000 children are homeless in Britain. As the weather gets colder and the nights get longer, it’s crucial to remind leaders they cannot ignore this growing, tragic problem in our country.


    And you people want to bring in even more???

    Sick and disabled people are being kicked out of THEIR council houses because of the so called bedroom tax- and you want to give their homes to syrian refugees?

    Shame on Channel 4 we have enough of our own problems ignored by the media- yes syria is a tragedy, but so is the one on your own doorstep!! Good for germany taking them in- but it is a richer and physically MUCH bigger country- as is france and much by far russia, so why suggest bringing them to the uk its full and about time you realised that!! We are not the worlds bank.

    1. Coxy says:

      Fed up Taxpayer 20-Nov-13
      I agree with you , what is the matter with folks. The country is full to bursting, our health service is failing, our schools are a mess & we do not have enough housing for the people we have. Even is we did engage in a burst of house building, where will we build them. Every suitable plot is being built on ! Every acre given over to houses is less food to feed us.

    2. Dave says:

      And when did Bulgaria invite them? Maybe they should go back.

  7. Ralitsa says:

    Interesting article, Mr. Rugman, though not thoroughly true. There is one big fact you underestimate when criticising on Bulgaria. And that is that Bulgaria is one of the EU’s poorest countries. It does not have refugee facilities for a wave of more than 10 000 people (your sources of 5 000 do not match with government reports) and new 500 people crossing the border every single day. People are not kept in tents because we, the Bulgarians, like treating them like this, it is just that we don’t have residential dormitories for so many refugees. The country is trying to do its best in providing normal housing for those people – several student camps and hospital buildings have already been turned into refugee homes. Though, reconstruction takes time. And it takes money. Even more, it takes longer and is almost unbearable for a poor country like ours. A country where the minimum salary amounts 150 Euros per month, can not support normal care for its own people, what comes to the refugees? Most Europeans can’t manage surviving with this money for a week. Well … we are good in surviving. However, with the finances my country has, it can not invest a lot in refugees facilities. We need European help in order to provide better conditions for those people. The Bulgarian people are open minded and have big hearts, many of them have donated clothes and foods for the refugees but this is not enough. Of course, it’s always easier to focus on the bad side, isn’t it? The fact that a small group (and by small I mean no more than a 100 people compared to a population of 7.6 million) of people with Nazi thoughts have attacked someone does not mean that the population of Bulgaria in its entirety is filled with hatred against the refugees. Believe me, as a Bulgarian and European national I myself have spotted more hatred and discrimination based on my origin than any of those refugees has spotted in Bulgaria. And this coming from “internationally open countries” like the UK, Germany and France.

  8. Chris Hart says:

    Cant we take the Syrians who need real help – instead of Bulgarians who don’t need to come here but are – 70k a year.

    1. Todor says:

      Pick up the phone now and call Mr. Cameron and his buddies. Seems like you know a lot more than all of us and might have a solution for the global poverty and hunger.

  9. William Goldman says:

    This film and these pictures are shocking. We ought to be giving till it hurts.

  10. a Bulgarian says:

    Ralitsa, I don’t hink anyone is criticizing on Bulgaria, let’s not be so touchy on this topic. I am visiting the refugee camps every week and the situation is exactly what you can see on the video. I didn’t hear anyone saying that Bulgarians do that on purpose and I think you are taking it the wrong way. We can’t deny the facts, we should face them

    I think it is very important that foreign journalists cover the topic and help raise awareness of the problem as this can only help us cope with it. And I strongly disagree with what you said that the state institutions and the goverment are doing whatever they can to solve the problem. They are simply not and they are very far from doing their job properly…. to our deepest regret.

    1. Dan says:

      Are you still visiting the camps? Please email me I would like to help. Danielsegarra80@gmail.com

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