FORTRESS BULGARIA?

by Anthony Georgieff

Building barbed wire fence becomes main state effort to deal with refugee influx, to international disapproval

If someone wants to cross a wall, they will – regardless of the obstacles. This is an adage every wall-building government in the world knows – ever since the times of the Great Wall of China and, more recently, the Berlin Wall and the West Bank Wall. Bulgaria seems to be catching up.

From the standpoint of Europe, building a wall on one of its borders with the non-EU world is at least contentious. As is the case with so many other Bulgarian things and actions, to understand why the government is spending thousands of euros to erect a barbed-wire fence along its border with Turkey one needs to look at the background.

Historically, Bulgaria has a good record of hospitality towards refugees. The country accepted ethnic Bulgarian refugees from neighbouring countries after the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and the Great War of 1914-1918. It has a sizeable community of Armenians, the offspring of refugees fleeing repression in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. After the end of the Russian Civil War in 1917-1922, about 120,000 White Guard Russians were accepted in Bulgaria, too.

After the Communists came in 1944, the country quickly isolated itself from the rest of the world and became one of the most impenetrable locations in Europe.

The country's southern borders with Turkey and Greece, both NATO foes, were quickly fenced off. So were parts of the border with what was then Yugoslavia, also an enemy after Tito fell off with Stalin. Those borders were strictly guarded and border guards were ordered to shoot to kill in case anyone tried to flee. In those days, Turkey and Yugoslavia were "West" and Bulgarian and other Eastern bloc refugees risked their lives to be able to escape the Bulgarian peasants' and workers' paradise.

After the fall of Communism the rusting barbed wire in the Strandzha and in the Rhodope was largely abandoned. The authorities did some of the dismantling themselves, but most was left to locals who lifted it to use in their own orchards or sold it for scrap metal. Bits of it can still be seen, especially in the Bulgarian chunk of the Strandzha along the Turkish border.
Bulgarians can now travel freely, so no one would want to walk the perilous paths of the Strandzha to escape. However, a succession of governments started to miss the Communist-era "installation."

First came an effort to rebuild the fence in the late 2000s. The official explanation was that a wall along the Turkish border would halt the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease, which supposedly penetrated Bulgaria with wild boars left unshot by non-pork eating Turkish hunters. A significant effort to start construction was made, cash changed hands, plans were put on the drawing board, but nothing happened. The project was abandoned once the money was safely in the bank accounts of the private companies commissioned to do the job.

The situation in 2014 is markedly different. What is at stake now is not some hoof-and-mouth disease carrying boars but thousands of refugees coming in via Turkey, mainly escapees from the civil war in Syria.

From January to the beginning of December 2013, there were already 11,315 people who crossed the border illegally, 8000 claiming asylum in Bulgaria. Almost all of them – 11,224 – came via Turkey. Syrians were 57 percent, followed by Afghans (16.3 percent), Algerians and Palestinians (with roughly 4 percent each) and Malians (about 3 percent). This is an almost 10 times increase on an year earlier.

Understandably, Bulgaria was caught off guard. For years it had been a source of emigration rather than a destination for immigration. Many Bulgarians were puzzled why anyone would want to come and settle in their country, the EU's poorest. Many more were enraged that the government, which is unable to cater for its own citizens, would have to spend money on newcomers that looked and behaved different from the majority Bulgarians.

These sentiments were quickly seized by nationalist parties and organisations, and a media frenzy ensued.

In this situation the government decided that its most important task was not to ensure proper conditions in the refugee reception centres as well as security and legal help to their inhabitants. Few efforts were made to explain to the general public that these people ran away from a vile conflict. They were largely seen as criminals crossing the border to suck Bulgaria's crumbling social security system.

So, the idea of a new wall came into the picture.

At an estimated cost of 5 million leva, construction of the "installation" was to start initially along a 30-kilometre stretch of the border with Turkey. The Defence Ministry chose its contractors and the plan was to have the fence ready by the end of February.

By the end of February, it had not even started.

Public procurement, keeping deadlines and doing things within business plan limits is not a particular Bulgarian virtue. In the months preceding the end of the February deadline, the fence's estimated cost rose to 10 million leva. Reported irregularities in the contractors' selection emerged, the prime minister ordered a probe, and the media started again discussing the architectural virtues of the planned wall, almost completely omitting the much more important issue of Bulgaria's international commitments.

Reaction from Europe was swift. Both the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, and the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, Nils Muižnieks, voiced their concerns that the planned fence violated the European spirit and curtailed human rights.

The 2014 report of the UN High Commission for Refugees on Bulgaria as an asylum destination is a depressing document. It asserted, plainly, that people in need of international protection were at risk of being denied entry to Bulgaria, of being detained and prosecuted for irregular entry or presence, or not holding valid documentation, and of not receiving access to effective registration and assessment of their asylum claims.

The European Commission for Home Affairs, too, stated that kicking asylum-seekers away from EU borders will not be tolerated. Money should be spent not on erecting walls but for helping out and integrating people in grave distress.

The larger question, of course, concerns "Fortress Europe," but in this case it is up to the Bulgarian government to decide whether it should cave in to negative public sentiments and nationalists' demands or it should live up to its commitments as a member of the international community. The cash already spent is an entirely different issue altogether.

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