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Bulgaria Between The Crises (2): Refugees From The Syrian Conflict

[In the second part of his article on Bulgaria between the crises, GPPW-contributor Felix Troeltzsch takes a look at the impact the Syrian Conflict has had on Bulgaria and the situation of refugees and immigrants in the country.]

Today, Bulgaria finds itself situated between some of the most alarming conflicts of the last decades. In the north-east, just across the Black Sea, Ukraine is about to dissolve in a violent war. Inner-state separatists seem to team up with Russia’s government, which is reclaiming power in the region by proclaiming a new “Novorossiya” (Robins-Early 2014). In the south-east of Bulgaria, the three-year-old civil war in Syria spread to Iraq and developed into a vast crisis of unexpected magnitude. The last report briefly observed Bulgaria’s unique perception of the Ukrainian Crisis. In this second part, the analysis will therefore focus on Bulgaria’s indirect role in the current conflict in Syria and Iraq – most importantly as one of the EU’s most significant receptors of refugees from the region. It will investigate how the Balkan country deals with asylum-seekers and formulate suggestions for the future.

The Current Refugee Situation in the EU

According to UNHCR, in 2014 the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time in the post-World War II era, exceeded 50 million people (UNHCR 2014). In 2013 more than five million people have fled from the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan into neighboring countries and millions more became internally displaced. Due to the recent intensification of the crises in Syria and Iraq, as well as their expansion to Yemen, Lebanon and other parts of the Middle-East, these numbers have increased by today (Barett 2014). Many of these refugees have been heading west, seeking their fortune in the prosperous and peaceful European Union.

For the purpose of this analysis, it is important to differentiate between the origins and routes of the refugees as well as legal and illegal border-crossings into the European Union. Generally, many displaced persons are entering the EU legally, which means that they are using an official border-crossing point at an airport or at the external border of the Union. However, people who either cannot afford regular plane tickets, lost their passports / identification documents, or are planning to apply for asylum in a country, that differs from their first country of entry, or the country their relatives live in, commonly try to enter the EU illegally. According to chapter three of the Dublin III-Act (see: note 1), only one EU country can be responsible for the asylum process. If the applicant does not have any close relatives or family members in a certain country, the EU member-state that received or apprehended him or her first is responsible for the application procedure (Europäisches Parlament 2013: 9-11). Consequently, different routes of illegal entry into the EU have developed over the years. The three most important ones are the Central Mediterranean route to Malta and Italy (more than 40 000 people in 2013), the Eastern Mediterranean route to Bulgaria, Greece and Cyprus (about 25 000 people in 2013) and the Western Balkan route (almost 20 000 people in 2013). Among these, Syrians are currently by far the biggest group of illegal immigrants in the EU and accounted to about 25 000 alone in the year 2013 (Frontex 2014: 31).

Asylum Applications in Bulgaria

Together with Greece, Bulgaria is one of the EU countries that has been most affected by illegal immigration originating from the Syrian conflict (Economist 2013). It plays a specifically important role as a destination for illegal boarder-crossings of asylum-seekers taking the Eastern Mediterranean route from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Between 2012 and 2013 the use of this route increased by about 43 % and from January till April 2014 alone, almost 6000 asylum seekers tried to enter the EU clandestine via this connection through Turkey (Barrett 2014; Frontex 2014). Although exact numbers are hard to gather, it is estimated that in this context more than 10 000 people entered Bulgaria illegally during the last years. At the same time, the numbers of legal entries through official Bulgarian border-crossing posts and asylum applications in Bulgaria remained relatively low (Frontex 2014; Eurostat 2014). So, why are many people entering Bulgaria illegally, if, according to their passport, they are rightfully able to transit Turkey and apply for asylum in the EU in a provided way ?

This question can be answered by looking at the situation and motives of the refugees more closely. Asylum-seekers in Bulgaria can be characterized as, firstly, young people who flee from the conflict in Syria and Iraq to seek better futures in the EU. Secondly, people who decide to take the Eastern Mediterranean land route, do not have enough money to fly into the European Union and cannot draw on good contacts to relatives or friends who would be able to lend the necessary money. Thirdly, most of these people are attracted to economically strong EU states, with a functioning social system to be able to start over again. Lastly, many refugees get caught by gangs of smugglers who, most of the time, capture all their identification documents and promise to convey them further to Western Europe, leading them to be stuck in Bulgaria (Amos/Marrouch 2013). This means that many asylum-seekers enter Bulgaria illegally, either because they intend to continue travelling to Germany, France or other more wealthy EU countries, or because their identification documents were stolen, making them unable to leave Turkey. Having this in mind, it becomes apparent that least fugitives apply for asylum in Bulgaria voluntarily but only see the Balkan country as a transit stop to enter EU territory.

Bulgaria’s Reactions

In the last years, many illegal immigrants were caught at the green border-line or several kilometers after. Together with the regular asylum-seekers, these illegal immigrants brought the Bulgarian administration to the limits of its capabilities. “On average, Bulgaria registered about 1 000 asylum seekers per year in the past decade. This changed in 2013 when more than 11 000 people […] lodged asylum applications” (HRW 2014). Bulgaria was completely unprepared for this surge of refugees and reacted in two separate ways.

Firstly, the Balkan country launched efforts to hinder immigrants to cross the Turkish-Bulgarian border illegally. For this purpose border controls were expanded in cooperation with Frontex and a fence of barbed-wire was built at the most popular green crossing-lines. Moreover, the whole border was equipped with new surveillance technology such as infrared cameras and special alarming mechanisms, that call the nearest patrol if illegal crossings are detected. In this context Bulgarian border patrols were accused of so called “Push-Backs” by Human Rights Watch. The non-profit organization claims in its most recent report on Bulgaria (April 2014) that , according to interviews with several refugees, multiple Bulgarian police officers prevented people from crossing the boarder by pushing them back by force into Turkish territory without giving the fugitives the opportunity to ask for asylum. If this is true[2], the Bulgarian authorities clearly violated international human rights law (HRW 2014; Jones 2014). However, these measures seem to be quite effective: From January to June 2014 only about 1500 people could enter Bulgaria via the green line, whereby in October 2013 alone more than 3600 asylum seekers were successful.

As a second strategy to deal with the new surge of asylum-seekers, the poorest EU country expanded its institutional network of detention facilities, registration and reception centers. There are currently seven of these centers in Bulgaria – four are situated near the Turkish border, one lies in the middle of Bulgaria and two centers can be found near Sofia. Most refugee centers can still be recognized as old barracks from the Cold War era. Although they usually have running water and beds, most buildings are overcrowded and suffer from a lack of basic humanitarian assistance like proper sanitary facilities, heaters, food or clothing. All asylum-seekers must be detained until their identity, origin and responsible EU country is clarified. Nevertheless, once people are granted the refugee or humanitarian status, they are allowed to move freely in their region of Bulgaria and look for jobs. However, since most of them fled from Syria and Iraq without money or possessions, many refugees are forced to stay in the centers because they cannot afford a flat. Furthermore, due to a lack of knowledge of the local language and culture as well as Bulgaria’s high unemployment rate in rural areas, only very few refugees could actually find a job (HRW 2014; Novinite 2014).

Reasons and Chances for Bulgaria

The reasons for this mostly poor treatment of refugees and asylum applicants are obvious. Bulgaria has one of the weakest economies in the EU and suffers from a high unemployment rate, especially in rural areas. Caring properly about refugees costs money that the Bulgarian treasury does not want to spend. Besides, there is no influential lobby in the country’s political environment that would foster investments in refugee centers or general humanitarian care. The current political course is framed by deterrence rather than assistance. However, since the conflict in Syria and Iraq are not likely to end anytime soon, more asylum-seekers will enter Bulgaria illegally, no matter how high the barbed-wire fence is.

Instead of fearing asylum-seekers, Bulgaria might be served best by welcoming them. Who else, if not Bulgaria? The Balkan country has one of the fastest declining society in the world and therefore suffers from a huge brain drain. The majority of Bulgaria’s educated young people want to emigrate to Western Europe. Europe’s poorest country has lost almost 25 % of its population since 1989 and decreased with an annual rate of -0,82 % in the last ten years. Differing from that, many refugees from Syria and Iraq have a university degree, worked as doctors, lawyers or skilled craftsmen. They are predominantly young and highly motivated workers that are determined to make something out of their lives. Mainly due to administrative obstacles they are not allowed to pursue their professions in Bulgaria and the EU. Taking chances as they are, the Balkan country could reduce its brain drain and develop into a better future through the creation of equal opportunities for migrants, the unification of standards and the opportunity to regain degrees and certificates..

Bulgaria always layed at a cross-road between superior powers and still does today. At first glance, this seems to be a burden. If managed correctly, though, the country could eventually profit from its unique position between Russia, the EU and the Middle-East. Its political leaders now need the  political will to look beyond short term costs and initiate internal and external policy changes. If this is successful, Bulgaria has the potential to play a leading role in the region and emerge as mediator between future crises.

Author Biography:

Felix Troeltzsch recently graduated from the University of Jena with a master’s degree in Political Science, focusing on International Relations and Peace Studies. Before that, he studied International Relations and American Studies at the University of Leipzig and University of Warsaw. Felix is mainly interested in international conflicts, security policy, human rights, the European Union and the Middle East. During several stays abroad he has dealt intensively with the Balkans and the Black Sea region.

Literature and Notes:

[1] The so called Dublin III Act (EU Regulation No 604/2013) became law on 26 June 2013 and establishes the criteria and mechanisms for determining the Member State responsible for examining an application for international protection lodged in one of the Member States by a third-country national or a stateless person.

[2] The assertion of Human Rights Watch is entirely based on interviews with affected people. However, most of them presented consistent stories about the places of their entry, uniforms of the police officers and other details.

Amos, Deborah, Rima Marrouch. 2013. With The Help Of Smugglers, Syrian Refugees Sneak Into Europe In: (10/06/2014).

Barrett, David. 2014. Illegal Immigration to Europe Shows Sharp Rise In: (10/05/2014).

Economist, The. 2013. Bulgaria is struggling to cope with Syrian refugees In: (10/07/2014).

Europäisches Parlament. 2013. VERORDNUNG Nr. 604/2013 (Dublin III Abkommen) In: (10/06/2014).

Eurostat. 2014. Asylum Statistics In: (10/06/2014).

Frontex. 2014. Annual Risk Analysis 2014. In: (10/06/2014).

HRW. 2014. Containment Plan In: (10/05/2014)

Jones, Sophia. 2014. Bulgaria Violates International Law By Denying Syrians Asylum, Rights Group Says In: (10/07/2014).

Novinite. 2014. Only 19 Refugees in Bulgaria Have Managed to Find Jobs in 4 Months In: (10/06/2014).

Robins-Early, Nick. 2014. Here’s Why Putin Calling Eastern Ukraine ‘Novorossiya’ Is Important In:   (10/07/2014).

UNHCR. 2014. World Refugee Day: Global forced displacement tops 50 million for first time in post-World War II era In: (10/06/2014).

Picture credit: Mitchell Roth


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