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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