Can Europe Make It?

The European refugee crisis: Bulgaria’s wake-up call?

The refugee crisis has superceded refugees and countries are being forced to choose sides. Why does Bulgaria support a united European solution when so many of its neighbours do not?

Alice Nicolov
23 September 2015
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Syrian refugee children in Bulgaria. Katya Yordanova/Demotix. All rights reserved.Over the last few weeks the refugee crisis has reached fever pitch in Europe. Countries on the frontline such as Italy, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria have found themselves increasingly scrutinised over their policies and practices towards refugees. The crisis has also forced European member states to take a long, hard look at themselves and respond to the calls of both the public and other European leaders to deal with the situation. Bulgaria has been no exception.

The refugee situation in Bulgaria

Over the last two years Bulgaria has seen an influx of refugees from its border with Turkey. As one of the poorest members of the European Union, Bulgaria’s immigration authorities are badly underfunded and underprepared for dealing with refugees.

Up until now Bulgaria has not been the route of choice for refugees travelling from the Middle East via Turkey to Europe. Instead, most choose to travel via Greece and Macedonia and on into western Europe. This is for a number of reasons: the reception of refugees, the conditions in Bulgaria, the implications of the Dublin agreement for those arriving in Bulgaria and the physical practicalities of crossing the border.

Now, however, it seems as though increasing numbers of refugees are choosing to cross into Europe by land via Bulgaria rather than sea because due to the lower smuggling costs, the horror stories of drownings and because the amenable summer conditions for sea travel are on the turn.

The issue of the refugees has not been something the Bulgarian popular press has given much time to until this summer and until recently there was little sympathy for refugees amongst the Bulgarian people. The public was not really aware of the massive scale of the refugee crisis outside of its borders because Bulgarian media had neither the interest nor the funds to send reporters to Syria.This isolation has fed into the fears of what is, for the most part, a largely insular society.

The fact that the majority of Syrian refugees are Muslim is also issue for ethnic Bulgarians. Bulgaria has a 10% Turkish-Muslim minority in a country with a population of around 7 million (and shrinking) and there is little desire to increase the Muslim presence there.

Furthermore, Bulgaria, as one of the poorest nations within the EU has two economic issues to consider with regards to the refugees. On the one hand it was, and still is, felt that Bulgaria should not be taking in refugees and supporting them when the country is barely able to provide its existing citizens with the welfare they need.

On the other hand Bulgaria has a large number of its own citizens seeking work and new futures in northern and western Europe. There are mixed feelings, therefore, about the prospect of competition for employment from large numbers of new immigrants with a higher ‘need’ quotient.

As such, compassion for the refugees has been largely missing and thus the crisis has been ignored, as much as possible, by the Bulgarian press. Of course it cannot be said that all Bulgarians were ignorant of the situation or that they did not feel pity for the refugees, however this was not the prevalent trend.

For the most part it has been easier to ignore the situation and to leave refugees that arrived in Bulgaria in squalid, underfunded camps such as Harmanli and Ovcha Kupel, which have both hit the headlines internationally, than to deal with the situation. It was, until very recently, not seen as a ‘Bulgarian’ problem.

A change in perception?

This all started to change over the summer months, however, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the crisis had become too big and too close to home to ignore. The mass of people moving from northern Greece to Serbia en route to northern Europe via Macedonia, which of course shares a border with Bulgaria, meant that the refugee crisis was now surrounding Bulgaria, not just confined to its backwater borders with Turkey.

Thus, Bulgaria is now seeing an increase in refugees massing on its borders. According to the UNHCR as of September 2015 around 6,800 refugees have entered Bulgaria illegally without claiming asylum and 5,000 have illegally left Bulgaria without being processed at a border checkpoint. This, alongside the mandatory refugee quota, means Bulgaria is now keen to see a pan-European solution put in place.

The event, however, that brought home to the Bulgarians, more than anything, that they could no longer ignore their refugee crisis, was the arrest in Hungary of three Bulgarian citizens accused of human trafficking. These men from Lom in northern Bulgaria are accused of causing the death of 71 refugees who died as a result of being transported in a truck designed for refrigerated goods, and was thus hermetically sealed. All 71 refugees, including four children, suffocated to death. The truck was abandoned on the road in Austria where the bodies were discovered. The traffickers had fled the scene.

This, alongside the fact that the refugee crisis was filling the front pages of practically every international newspaper with shocking images of the suffering of the refugees, meant that Bulgarian press could no longer ignore the crisis. It is interesting to note that unlike in western Europe, the images of the drowned Syrian child on a beach in Turkey did not hit the front pages of the Bulgarian newspapers.

Rather than being moved from their inertia by these images, it was rather the trafficking case that caused the Bulgarian public and the Bulgarian press to realize that there needed to be an urgent reassessment of Bulgaria’s standing in Europe and what sort of society Bulgaria has.

International news coverage exposed the fact that Bulgarian citizens with long criminal records and who were well-known to police had been involved in the deaths of these refugees. What did this say to the international community about Bulgaria? The spotlight was put on Bulgaria as a nation and questions started to be asked as to what Bulgaria was doing to deal with the refugees.

The fact that Bulgarian citizens are involved in people trafficking has highlighted Bulgaria’s inability to deal with organised crime more widely, which has a damning effect on Bulgaria’s desire to be seen as a ‘good’ member of the EU. As such, the Bulgarian government has spoken out strongly in favour of a pan-European solution to the crisis and also has been adamant in its desire to tackle crime and trafficking across Europe.

The European choice

Bulgaria wants to be seen as committed to pro-European choices as well as playing a role in a Europe that will bring benefits to her. For example: Schengen membership. In the last few weeks alone members of the Bulgarian government have been extremely outspoken in their support for a European policy on refugees. On September 14 Rumyana Bachvarova explicitly spoke out in support of the EU’s mandatory quotas for refugees, something which many of its European neighbours are resisting.

Whilst it is true that in Bulgaria the people have not been out protesting with ‘refugees welcome’ signs, there has been a shift in the Bulgarian psyche. There is sympathy for the refugees, but also the recognition that Bulgaria simply cannot afford to help the refugees on its own. With a unified European response, however, Bulgaria is willing to play its part.

Bulgaria is also keen to distance itself from countries like Hungary and Slovakia, whose refugee policies are at odds with Brussels’ and Germany’s ideas on how to handle the crisis. As such, at today's EU summitBulgaria will push for a pan-European solution. Whilst there is no appetite to accommodate more refugees than necessary, unfortunately for Bulgaria the prominence of the Lom trafficking case has made it difficult for the reality of refugees in Bulgaria to be ignored.

For Europe as a whole, the refugee crisis has become more than a question of the tide of refugees crossing its borders. It has forced countries to make choices about what sort of states they want to be. For Bulgaria it is quite simple: Bulgaria wants to be ‘in’ Europe rather than out.

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