by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgaria fails to handle influx of Syrian refugees

As dozens of Syrian refugees enter the country, mostly illegally and mostly through the Bulgarian-Turkish border, the Sofia establishment is failing to even address the issue in its entirety and complexity. Politicians bicker, and amid the flow of accusations and counteraccusations traded among former strongman Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and the current rulers the Bulgarian state is failing to handle the most basic needs, including food and shelter, of the hundreds of new arrivals from war-torn Syria. Some humanitarian organisations have raised the alarm that Bulgaria has to live up to its international obligations, but the language used by mainstream local and national politicians indicates a profound refusal to help.

Playing on popular fears, GERB Mayor of Sofia Yordanka Fandakova has indicated her opposition to open up additional refugee centres in the capital. Echoing the prevalent sentiment in the country, her lieutenants have called for stepped up security in Central Sofia, suggesting the Syrian asylum-seekers are criminals out to pick pockets rather than men, women and children fleeing a vicious civil war.

Some newspapers have sent out reporters to meet the Syrians. Those have described conditions of squaller, hunger and lack of basic medical assistance. Some asylum-seekers have been quoted as saying they will seek to return to their destitute homeland rather than stay in Bulgaria of the 21st Century.

To put it it plainly, in the past 70 years Bulgaria has never been faced with an influx of immigrants. In fact, the opposite is true. Since the aftermath of the First World War, when hundreds of thousands of ethnic Bulgarians were resettled in the Kingdom of Bulgaria from neighbouring Turkey and Greece, the country has seen – and in some cases prompted – mass emigration of its own citizens. These include over 40,000 Jews who left in the late 1940s for Israel and 150,000 ethnic Turks who emigrated to Turkey in the early 1950s. Obviously, the biggest emigration "event" in Bulgaria's recent history came in the summer of 1989 when over 300,000 Turks fled persecution and a forcible Bulgarianisation campaign at home, causing the biggest movement of people in post-war Europe.

Emigration continued in the 1990s and 2000s when Bulgarians, especially younger ones, sought to leave their country to study and seek a better life abroad.

If track records are anything to go by, post-Communist Bulgaria has been at least reluctant to accept refugees, the most notable example being the 1999 Kosovo crisis when the government in Sofia plainly refused to offer asylum to anyone fleeing the conflict.
2013 is different, however. Bulgaria is now a full member of the EU and has it international obligations to live up to. Owing the continuing political instability and the exacerbating economic crisis it finds it difficult to do so. Significantly, instead of seeking fast solutions to assist the refugees, the country's politicians prefer to vilify one another over who failed to do what to foresee and prepare for the refugee "crisis."

Popular sentiment amongst the Bulgarians is at best cautious. The overwhelming majority of Bulgarians are unused to foreigners, especially Muslims coming from countries the Bulgarians consider poorer than their own. Ironically, the roles have been reversed in just over 20 years. Under Communism, Syria was a key Soviet ally in the Middle East and many Bulgarian guest workers went to work there, enjoying life in the Arab country where they were paid in hard currency which they could bring back home. The "traditional" Bulgarian "hospitality" is nowhere to be seen now there is a steady stream of penniless asylum-seekers who want but the basic care for their immediate needs.

The refugee "crisis" is of course picked up by cunning policymakers, fostering feelings of xenophobia and racism.

It is difficult to predict how the situation will evolve unless the Bulgarian government acts fast to handle the Syrian refugees with compassion and dignity. Even if they do, Bulgaria must face up to the facts: EU membership means not only generous funds for farming and promoting digital TV. It also means a shared responsibility to respond to emigration challenges that the West has the experience and the resources needed to address but that Bulgaria has had a very limited exposure to.


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