Prisoners of Europe

Syrians refugees in Bulgaria

Daniela Sala
Feb 2, 2015 · 6 min read

(A project by Daniela SALA and Emilia USKI AUDINO)

BULGARIA — In autumn 2013 Bulgaria suddenly became the new and cheapest access point to eastern Europe for people fleeing the war in Syria. “We did not choose Bulgaria. We do not mean to stay here: it is just the cheapest gateway to European Union”.

Days are very long in Harmanli and the youngsters in the refugee camp spend their days hanging around, waiting, or playing football. March 2014/Daniela SALA

Yasser is 24 years old, he is from Quneitera in southern Syria, and when we first met in March 2014 he was accommodated in Bulgaria’s Harmanli refugee camp 35 kilometres from the Turkish border.

Bulgaria is a relatively easy border to cross irregularly, especially in summer, with smugglers asking around €500 to get people from Istanbul across the Bulgarian border. After Greece built a 10.5 kilometers fence along its border with Turkey in mid-2012, most of the asylum seekers had no choice but to head north through Bulgaria.

“Bulgaria was just the cheapest gateway to the EU. We did not mean to stay.”

Yasser (left) in his room in Harmanli camp with Wissam, a Syrian with Palestinian origins(right). March 2014/Daniela SALA

Young and stuck: Syrians in Bulgaria

They thought they were finally safe, that their journey was almost over. Most of the young men we met used be student in Syria and many of them, like Mouhamed, were forced to leave because they refused to serve in the army.

“We have lost everything in Syria. I escaped because I do not want to kill anyone”

Mouhamed he is volunteering in the camp as an English teacher and hope to build a new life in Germany: he did not expect to be stuck here for months. Not unlike his friends, he wants to work, study and start a new life but here, stuck in Harmanli limbo, he find himself struggling against boredom every single day.

Due to Dublin regulation, hundreds of Syrians are stuck in the poorest country of the European Union where facilities for refugees are very poor and the chance to find a job and build a new life are extremely low / Emilia USKI AUDINO and Daniela SALA

Accommodation centers

Refugees who manage to apply for asylum are usually sent to Harmanli accommodation center, a former military barracks a few kilometers from Turkish border.

Voenna Rampa centre is located in a former industrial neighborhood in the outskirt of Sofia. Living condition here are very poor. March 2014/Daniela SALA

There they await decisions on their requests, a procedure that might take 9 months or longer. Other facilities are in Vrazhdebna and in Voenna Rampa, Sofia’s outskirt.

Most of the people in Harmanli and Voenna Rampa are Kurdish families and youngsters fleeing the violence in Syria.

The wall and the push-backs

By November 2013, Bulgaria had received more than 3,400 asylum applications from Syrian refugees, prompting the Bulgarian authorities to ask for support from the European Union and Frontex, the EU’s border agency. In addition Bulgaria deployed 1500 policemen on the border with Turkey.

“They (the policemen, ndr) prevent people from crossing the border”

Stories of asylum seekers pushed back from Bulgaria /Emilia USKI AUDINO and Daniela SALA

A human wall badly equipped and not properly trained, as described by the Bulgarian magazine Capital, they are mandated to prevent people from crossing the border. Frontex states that the role of Bulgarian police is to guide people to the official check-points where they have the right to apply for asylum.

Frontex officers patrolling the area close to the border. March 2014/Daniela SALA

Last December Bulgaria started to build a wall: 30 kilometers of barber-wire and fences between the towns of Lesovo and Krajnovo. The fence is currently underway but its costs have risen, with completion now projected to cost €4.9 million. Following these measures the number of people applying for asylum in Bulgaria decreased dramatically. While 1,040 Syrian refugees applied for asylum in Bulgaria in November 2013, according to Eurostat, the next month saw less than half that number.

As a result of the deployment of 1500 policemen, number of asylum requests dropped dramatically

The spring saw very few Syrian applicants, but since summer the number has steadily been on the rise. In total, Bulgaria received just over 9,000 Syrian asylum applications between the start of the crisis in March 2011 and Sept. 2014, making it the fourth largest receiver of Syrian asylum seekers in Europe.

A young Syrian in Harmanli refugee camp. March 2014/Daniela SALA

At the same time, UNHCR and Bulgarian NGOs reported growing numbers of illegal push-backs of refugees. Many Syrians reported that despite documents proving their nationality, they were prevented from leaving Turkey and applying for asylum in Bulgaria at official checkpoints. More seriously, anecdotal evidence exists of people being beaten and forcedly taken back in Turkey after been discovered by the Bulgarian police.

Uncertain futures

Syrians in Bulgaria might have access to different types of protection: political asylum, due to specific and individual needs; refugee status, which grants the person the same rights of EU citizens for 5 years; and humanitarian protection, with which the person is not allowed to leave the country without a special travel visa.

A child shirt drying in the sun in Harmanli refugee camp. March 2014/Daniela SALA

This does not stop many from trying. Bulgaria is a poor country that has little to offer refugees, and thus many attempt to go to Germany, France or Sweden where friends and relatives already live. Those that get caught by the Greek and Romanian border patrols as they cross into the Schengen area are sent back, but most of the young Syrians we met succeeded in reaching Germany. There they chose to reapply for asylum, even though their chances of being sent back to Bulgaria were very high.

Dublin regulation determines the country responsible of the asylum request. Most frequently the first country of arrival.

Yasser now shares a flat with other refugees in a small village in northern Germany while he waits for his asylum request to be examined. He managed to get here in July, crossing the border with Greece and then catching a flight to Italy. From there he finally got to Germany by train.

“I am feeling a bit isolated,” he said. “I go to German class, to the gym and visiting friends, but I am still waiting and I can not work or study”. He is well aware that, because he already has protection in Bulgaria, the chances his application will be rejected are very high. “I do not care,” he added. “If I can not stay here I will go to France. I have friends there and they can help me find a job even if do not have documents”.

“I am not going back to Bulgaria. I will stay in Germany no matter what”

Mouhamed sitting in the classroom where he teaches English to children in Harmanli refugee camp. March 2014/Daniela SALA

One of the other Syrians we spoke to, Mouhamed, now lives in Germany too. “Last week I was told that my asylum request here has been rejected,” he explained. “I asked a lawyer for help but it does not matter. I am not going back to Bulgaria. I studied German and I mean to stay”.

His relatives, meanwhile, tried several times to cross the border between Turkey and Bulgaria but, according to Mouhamed, every time they were pushed back by Bulgarian policemen. Mouhamed’s younger brother now plans to catch a boat from Turkey to Italy.

(Article and videos also published by Focus on Syria)

A statue representing the European Union in the city of Harmanli, few meters from the refugee camp. Marc 2014/Daniela SALA
    Daniela Sala

    Written by,

    Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
    Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
    Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade