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Passing through? Life in Bulgaria’s refugee camps

  • Written by  Kit Gillet
  • Published in Refugees
The Harmanli refugee camp in Bulgaria The Harmanli refugee camp in Bulgaria UNHCR/D. Kashavelov
23 Jun
On the outskirts of Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, the refugee centre of Ovcha Kupel houses over 700 foreign nationals, most of them individuals or families fleeing the turmoil in Syria and Afghanistan. Paint is peeling and conditions are basic, yet the realities the refugees are fleeing from back home are often far worse

Thousands of Syrians, as well as Afghanis, Iraqis and others are living in refugee centres in Bulgaria, the European Union’s poorest nation, with most simply waiting for official refugee status and the chance to then move further into the EU; once a refugee has official status in one EU country they can go elsewhere within the EU for up to three months at a time, after which they are obliged to return to the country they were registered, though many try to ignore this rule.

In 2013, 11,606 refugees entered Bulgaria, five times more than the country was used to dealing with. For a while Bulgaria struggled to handle the influx, setting up new centres and retrofitting long-abandoned communist-era buildings in an attempt to house them all. International NGOs criticised the country’s inadequate preparation, which left many sleeping in tents through the winter of 2013–14, and while things have improved markedly, the number of refugees still remains high.

2(Image: UNHCR/D. Kashavelov)

Between January and the beginning of June this year, a total of 3,860 irregular third-country nationals entered Bulgaria, according to the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior, of which almost 2,000 came from Syria alone. The construction of a fence along the country’s border with Turkey has cut the number of new arrivals dramatically, but the decision to build the fence in the first place, with its central purpose of keeping out those fleeing often life-threatening situations in their home countries, has been controversial.

Few of those in the refugee centres in Bulgaria were planning to seek asylum in the country, a place most knew little about, but were instead stopped by border officers or police while transiting through the country on route to Germany, Sweden and other countries in Western Europe, where they hoped to begin new lives away from the fear and destruction back home.

3(Image: UNHCR/D. Kashavelov)

Sitting on a park bench on the outskirts of Sofia, Aras Mohamad tries to explain why he fled Syria and how he ended up living in a refugee camp in Bulgaria.

‘I’m just trying to have the best possible life for me and to support my family,’ explains the 25-year-old Kurd. ‘In my university dorms in Homs the fighting was all around us. One day I was taking a bus and ISIS fighters pulled it over. They said because I was a Kurd they can easily kill me, but after I gave them all my money they let me go.’

Mohamad fled Syria, crossing through Turkey and arriving in Bulgaria, the easternmost country in the EU, where he is now living in a former communist-era woodwork academy on the outskirts of the capital that has been repurposed as a refugee centre. Children play in front of the building, located in a desolate industrial part of the city far from shops, schools or residential areas.

‘The racism is too much in Turkey so I just wanted to get to anywhere in the EU,’ he says, but adds that as soon as he has all his documentation he will leave Bulgaria and head further into the EU looking for work. ‘Bulgaria can’t help me with work. Bulgarians can’t find a job here, so how can Syrians?’

4(Image: UNHCR/D. Kashavelov)

While being processed, asylum seekers in Bulgaria are given basic shelter, optional vocation training and two meals a day. In Ovcha Kupel, six people are assigned to each small room, with families mostly kept all together.

I meet Salar Faez, a 23-year-old Kurd from Iraq attending a Bulgarian language class in Ovcha Kupel, alongside refugees from Mali, Ukraine, Cameroon, Syria and Afghanistan. ‘I wanted to go to Germany, my brother and sister are there, but they caught me crossing through Bulgaria,’ he explains.

‘I came with my uncle’s family, and my mother and brother and sister. We crossed from Iraq by foot and car. We paid someone to get us across the Turkish border with Bulgaria,’ he says, after which the family were simply dropped off early one morning in Sofia and left to fend for themselves.

‘I’m Yazidi [a Kurdish religious community]. Before, the situation in Iraq wasn’t as bad as it is now with IS. Now it is really bad for Christians and Yazidi, and it’s getting more dangerous for us,’ he says. ‘All Yazidi want to leave, but most don’t have the money to get out.’

5(Image: UNHCR/D. Kashavelov)

For many of those seeking asylum in the EU it was a long and desperate journey just to arrive in Bulgaria in the first place.

‘Six times we tried to cross the border between Turkey and Bulgaria before we succeed,’ says Ari Rasho, 27, a Kurdish furniture maker who fled Syria with his wife and two-year-old son.

The family had paid smugglers €5,000 (£3,500) to get them from Turkey to the UK, but were cheated and left in Bulgaria. Now they are staying at Ovcha Kupel while they wait to get official refugee status. ‘We will leave [Bulgaria] as soon as possible, so I don’t see the point in trying to learn the language,’ he says.

This is a common sentiment among refugees who have ended up in Bulgaria, a poor country with a Slavic language and few obvious job possibilities.

‘Most of the refugees don’t want to stay in Bulgaria. They don’t learn the language, and without that they won’t find a job or make a life for themselves,’ says Nadezhda Todorovska, head of social welfare at the Bulgarian Red Cross. ‘Over 90 per cent don’t want to stay in Bulgaria. If they don’t want to stay here how do you integrate them?’
Instead, many refugees spend their days waiting for the official papers that would mean they’re able to move farther into the European Union.

‘We have nothing to do, we just sit around,’ says one asylum seeker, who declines to give her name but shows me around the room she shares with five other women, where clothes hang on poles and vegetables sizzle on a hotplate.

Others want to at least attempt to make a life for themselves in the far reaches of Europe.

‘I knew nothing about Bulgaria before arriving,’ says Mohamad Ajub, a 22-year-old Afghan who spent three months travelling in order to reach the safety of the EU, after being threatened by the Taliban. ‘My idea was to get to Europe, any country in Europe willing to accept me. I just want to live somewhere safe. If I can find work here, I’ll stay.

A version of this article was first published on GlobalPost.

For an in-depth look at The Refugee Crisis, read Mark Rowe’s complete Dossier in the latest issue, on sale now. Or click here to subscribe and never miss an issue.

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