A refugee camp near the Turkish border in the town of Harmanli, south-east of the Bulgarian capital Sofia © NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP/Getty Images
More than a week ago we arrived to the eastern border of the European Union, Bulgaria. Since August we have been receiving alarming news and distress calls from refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants trying to reach the country.
More than 10,000 people have entered Bulgaria so far this year, a dramatic rise over 2012.
Our first destination was Busmantsi, a cold and overcrowded detention centre in the outskirts of Sofia where hundreds of men, women and children – even unaccompanied minors – are often unnecessarily deprived of their liberty. The next stop was the town of Elhovo on the Turkish-Bulgarian border.
This little town alone has two detention facilities. In a custody centre run by Elhovo border police, we found hundreds of newly arrived refugees and witnessed how they are been greeted by the EU. Here, dozens of families with children and babies are being hosted in a makeshift reception facility – a basketball court really – sleeping rough, in squalid conditions and lacking basic necessities.
“Fights break out among people here over a dirty blanket,” said M. from Iran. “We don’t know what will happen to us,” he continued.
Another man at the centre, Mamdoa, was in the second-year of his university studies when the war in Syria broke out. He eventually had to leave his country and made his way through Turkey. After crossing the border into Bulgaria, he applied for asylum in Elhovo.
A few days later we met Mamdoa again, this time in a refugee camp in Harmanli. Officially, the camp is labelled as an “accommodation centre”. In reality it’s a former military complex. Behind a guarded, heavy iron gate with a sign bearing a lion are rows of red and white cargo containers, each holding up to two families. As we walked deeper into the camp, the smell of smoke began to fill the air and we were astonished to see dozens of green army tents hosting men, women, families with children and even babies. We realized that people have to burn wood they collect from the nearby trees to keep themselves warm and to cook. Potatoes are all many of them can afford, apart from bread and sugar.
In one of the tents we met Malalai, a young girl from Afghanistan. A linguist by profession, she speaks English well, and talks confidently. Next to her sat her father, who spent 25 years trying to make their home country a safer place. He was a deminer in Afghan minefields until the Taliban threatened him, to coerce him to work for them. At the same time, a Taliban fighter insisted that Malalai marry him. She and her father refused and the family was forced to move several times to escape death threats. Eventually they had to flee Afghanistan.
“We were proud to work for our country,” said Malalai who is now trapped thanks to Bulgaria’s ineffective asylum system. “What are human rights? I learned that human rights mean respect but in here I think everything is a lie… There is no ear to hear, no mind to understand and no heart to feel.”
We witnessed the hardships people in Harmanli have to endure. The camp has only eight showers for a thousand people and appalling hygiene conditions. Strapped for cash, they need to pay for their food and provisions, and are dreading the onset of winter.
Harmanli is the biggest out of five “reception centres” for refugees in Bulgaria. The government has hastily put some of these centres back in use after they have lain vacant in a dilapidated state for years.
Yesterday morning we met the Deputy Minister of Interior, Plamen Angelov, who acknowledged the serious shortcomings and described their efforts as a race against time. Whether unprepared or unwilling, the authorities have been ignoring the signs for far too long. Politicians, including government ministers, have been feeding into the latest xenophobic rhetoric in the country.
In the past week alone, three people perceived as migrants were attacked by far-right extremists, and one ended up in a coma.
We have just called a refugee we met few days ago to let him know of the whereabouts of his friends and that they are safe. He sounds happy: “All is good,” he says “all is good.”
We can’t help but wonder, is it really?
Read more:Bulgaria: Migrants ‘living in fear’ after xenophobic attacks (News story, 12 November 2013)
When you don’t exist (Campaign page)