Can Europe Make It?

Bulgaria's refugee crisis

Bulgaria is struggling to cope with the number of Syrian refugees fleeing to its borders. This is a problem for the EU as a whole, not just Bulgaria.

Borislav Gizdavkov
17 October 2013

The Bulgarian-Turkish border at the Rezovo River. wikimedia commons/Svilen Enev. Some rights reserved.

The removal of Syria’s chemical weapons by a joint team of UN and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) specialists is already under way. Secretary of State Kerry went as far as giving the butcher Assad ‘credit’ for the commencement of the flawed programme for the destruction of his chemical agents stockpiles. Despite that, the horrendous conflict continues to destroy the social fabric of the Syrian nation.

While it is clear that the Syrian civil war has major repercussions for the wider Middle East region, its dynamics are starting to impinge upon European states as well. Bulgaria is a case in point. It is one of the countries worst affected by the growing inflow of Syrian refugees on its territory and the authorities' inept response to the increased pressures requires further scrutiny. 

Today, the situation with the Syrian refugees is dire. It is estimated that up to 5000 people flee Syria every day. The staggering numbers escaping the atrocities of the civil war are already putting enormous strains on Syria’s neighbours. A month ago, it was announced that Syrian refugees are numbering over 2 million people, and at least half of them are children – the most undeserving victims of the bloody conflict that has been ravaging Syria for more than two years.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim, writing for the Huffington Post, estimated that ‘across the EU, around 47,000 Syrians have sought asylum since the conflict began’. According to him, Europe as a whole has ‘been slow to respond to the rapid increase of refugees’ entering the continent. On the other hand, Turkey’s record of dealing with refugees has been laudable to date, but it too is beginning to experience growing problems with border security and smuggling.

Where does Bulgaria stand in this situation? Geographically, Bulgaria is not that remote from Syria. Sharing a border with Turkey, Bulgaria is the EU member state closest to Syria if one is travelling by road or railway transport. Therefore, as the most likely first point of entry into the Union, Bulgaria must be well equipped to meet the challenges that will ensue with the new expected waves of Syrian refugees in the coming months. Unfortunately, that appears not to be the case.  

According to the UN, for the period January - September, Bulgaria has received more than 3,000 asylum applications, more than three times the annual average over the last decade. This exponential increase in numbers, coupled with 'dire' conditions in accommodation centres, make Bulgaria a vulnerable hot spot on the EU's external border.

That is why the Minister of Interior Cvetlin Yovchev said in mid-September that Bulgaria is considering asking the European Commission for financial aid to ameliorate the effects of increased refugee inflows. That request, though viable it may be, comes at a time when Bulgaria is completely unprepared to utilise the funds. The reason for that is the lack of clear strategy for dealing with emergencies arising from the Syrian crisis, including hosting asylum seekers.

Michele Cercone, spokesperson of the European Commissioner for Home Affairs confirmed that and urged Bulgaria to define its priorities and needs if it is to ask for financial support. Mr Cercone also said that ‘there is no defined critical limit above which the country is said to be incapable of receiving further refugees.’

Instead of drawing up contingency plans before the events unfolded, government and local authority officials have been quick in their post factum descriptions of the situation as a crisis that Bulgaria somehow did not foresee. Bulgaria’s unpreparedness is also evident from the hastily debated and approved sacking of the Director of the State Agency for Refugees. Amid rising tensions across the country, such a decision is likely to have a rather negative impact owing to the loss of time for re-adjustment and setting of new agendas by the new Director.

This week it is expected that the European Commission will make a final decision as to whether Bulgaria will receive financial aid to cope with the situation. In the meantime, Kristalina Georgieva, the European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, has warned that the Bulgarian authorities lack experience of dealing with similar situations and have failed in crisis planning.

Some government officials’ behaviour is further destabilising an already fragile situation. The recent xenophobic comments made by a MP from the pseudo-nationalist party Ataka are an exemplary case. The ‘hate speech’ by the Ataka member Magdalena Tasheva is a disgrace to the country and every Bulgarian should feel ashamed that such ghastly and despicable words have been uttered by a MP. Unfortunately, Tasheva’s words sum the way the Bulgarian government has been dealing with the refugee crisis so far – by waging a rhetoric war.

Bulgaria is arguably one of the European Union’s most vulnerable states in terms of humanitarian crisis relief capabilities and that calls for rapid action. The incoherent policies adopted so far have worked only partially and will be feasible as a short-term solution to the problem.

Opening new accommodation locations is good news, but many issues such as the supply of vital foods and clothing remain unresolved. Admirably, though, civil grass-root initiatives organised in Facebook have filled some the government’s deficiencies in planning and response. Giving donations and providing material support for the Syrian refugees in Bulgaria shows the generosity and understanding of the population, but cannot be a substitute for an adequate state response to humanitarian crisis.   

The government should immediately designate the refugee crisis as a top priority and adopt a long-term strategy for dealing with all issues related to it. Those may include securing accommodations with decent living conditions, working closely with the Turkish authorities and adopting their approach, as well as initiating joint EU efforts to deal with the increased refugee entry. Most importantly, however, Bulgarian authorities should aim to strengthen institutional capacity and improve management on the ground if we are to see the situation improving.

Finally, the issue should be considered by officials within a ‘human security’ framework. In other words, the state needs to put individuals’ well-being first and ensure that food, shelter, and the human rights of the refugees are guaranteed. If those preconditions are met, the state security will not be threatened by potential illegal migration, smuggling, and crime. Until then, let’s hope that the Bulgarian citizens' generosity will make the Syrians feel as human beings that someone actually cares for.

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