Bulgaria Struggles with Syrian Refugee Influx (10/29)     Print Email

By Leah Katherine Bewley, European Affairs Editorial Assistant

As the Syrian conflict rages on, the flow of refugees requires humanitarian assistance from an expanding number of neighboring countries. Bulgaria is among them. The Bulgarian Ministry of Interior has called this “the biggest refugee crisis in the country in the past 90 years.”  While Bulgaria has fewer refugees, compared to Turkey and Lebanon, it is not equipped for the number already present in the country. And that number is growing rapidly. “We have a huge increase of the number of refugees crossing the Turkish-Bulgarian border, and we are in a situation now that we can hardly manage,” said Bulgarian Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin at the European Institute last month. “We didn’t have the capacities, the expert support. So now we are in a situation where we have to react quickly and build physical as well as expert capacities…”

Before September, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) there were 2,000 Syrian refugees in Bulgaria. Now, a few months later, around 6,500 refugees are registered in Bulgaria, according to reports. Yet, the country is capable of accommodating only 5,000. The three refugee shelters in Sofia are full. There are projections that by the end of the year the number will surpass 11,000.  

Bulgaria, along with Greece and Cyprus, is among the closest European Union countries to Syria. As Minister Vigenin noted, “Everybody was saying it is only one border away. We are bordering Turkey. It’s very close. It’s important what’s going on there. But for many people it was something very distant, only on the news.” No longer. Bulgarians are seeing the real and sometimes unpleasant effects of the crisis. Last week, over 200 Bulgarians protested plans to open a refugee shelter in Kazanlak, a town in the center of Bulgaria, by blockaiding Shipka Pass, a common entry path for refugees. The rally was an attempt to preserve a park where the camp would be set up.

Although Frontex, the EU border agency, is providing technical assistance and border control, the Bulgarian Foreign Minister, Kristian Vigenin, openly said, “It is not enough.” In addition, Minister Vigenin proposed turning to other individual EU member states for assistance. “If this continues we will not be able to provide the normal living conditions for those people,” he said.           

Over the past week, Bulgaria was granted assistance from a number of member states including Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Austria. On October 16, Bulgaria activated the Civil Protection Mechanism, an EU cooperation mechanism designed to be used during disaster response situations. The Civil Protection Mechanism applies to 32 European countries (the EU 28 member states plus the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.) The 32 countries donate resources, and the European Commission administers the Mechanism through the Emergency Response Coordination Centre. This centre is able to monitor and provide real-time exchange information on the aid reaching the country.

The aid includes over 2,000 folding beds and mattresses, 4,200 blankets, and other necessities. Slovakia, gave €30,000 in humanitarian aid. The Slovakian Ambassador to Bulgaria, Marian Jakubocy, commented, “The refugee problem is not only Bulgarian, but one that concerns the whole European Union.” Syrian refugees are traveling throughout Europe, many seeking asylum in France and the United Kingdom. Following criticism of Western nations on their handling of the refugee issue, 17 countries have agreed on quotas for asylum seeking Syrian refugees, including the United Kingdom, France and Sweden. Boris Cheshirkov, a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), called the conditions of an abandoned schoolhouse “dire”, which is being used to accommodate asylum seekers outside of Sofia. Bulgaria’s asylum system has inefficiencies that slow the processing of refugees. In late September, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), a nongovernmental organization established to protect human rights, called for the resignation of top management of Bulgaria’s State Agency for Refugees over the “dreadful” conditions. Only a few days later in early October, Nikola Kazakov, head of the Bulgarian Refugee Agency, was fired by the Bulgarian Interior Minister.

The situation in Bulgaria has worsened, especially over the past few months, and will only get worse if the flood of immigrants continues to arrive.