Home Human Rights Exclusive: “Syria has become better than Bulgaria” – migrants speak out on conditions in EU refugee camps

Exclusive: “Syria has become better than Bulgaria” – migrants speak out on conditions in EU refugee camps

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Tensions are increasing between refugees and staff at Bulgarian reception centers due to lack of resources, long waiting times and overcrowding. Syrian residents of the Harmanli center in southern Bulgaria shared some of their experiences with InfoMigrants.

Mahmoud*, a Syrian asylum seeker in his twenties, waits with growing frustration for his residency status at the Harmanli refugee reception center in Bulgaria.

“We need basic things, like food and hygiene things,” he said. InfoMigrants from the camp of southern Bulgaria. The lucky ones have to stay in the facility for two months – but this is rare. Many refugees have been waiting for their status for two years, with no hope in sight. Their lives, which have become a waiting game, are confined inside the fenced camp.

“We are forced to live with debt until we have access to our food and water, because the food they bring is not fit for human consumption,” said Mahmoud, standing beside from a group of young Syrians who have all become close friends in the camp.

Bilal*, another young Syrian, intervenes: “There are no mattresses, no blankets, no beds. Everything is old, I have been using what I have for six months and the conditions are terrible,” he says . “We fled the war. We thought we would find cleanliness and a better life here.”

A group of young Syrians awaiting a decision on refugee status, at the Harmanli reception center.  June 20, 2023. |  Photo: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum/InfoMigrants
A group of young Syrians awaiting a decision on refugee status, at the Harmanli reception center. June 20, 2023. | Photo: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum/InfoMigrants

One of the men said his younger sister, a minor, had been injured in the refugee camp and needed medical attention. “But no one helped us and no ambulance came to her,” he said. InfoMigrants.

Another man said he was also injured at the camp and his wound became infected. He too needed care, but a camp worker told him to “go back to Syria.”

One of the men later joins the group outside in the garden (InfoMigrants was refused access to internal accommodation) and shows a small bowl of rice mixed with peas and corn kernels. It’s the only meal migrants receive every day, he said, adding: “Life is terrible here…Syria has become better than Bulgaria.”

Security forces ‘hit people’ in refugee camp

Others speak of more sinister events at the camp. Hamid Khoshseiar, translator and coordinator of the human rights foundation Mission Wings, works daily with migrants in the camp. He’s heard horror stories about violence against migrants taking place at the reception center.

“There are certain places that the (security) cameras do not cover and the security forces used precisely those places to beat people,” he said. InfoMigrants from its consultation room near the camp. Khoshseiar himself arrived in Bulgaria as an Iranian refugee and took up residence in Harmanli.

Lack of resources and funding, long waits and increasing numbers of migrant arrivals are fueling tensions between refugees and reception center staff.

The Harmanli refugee reception center has 276 children, including 81 unaccompanied minors.  June 20, 2023. |  Photo: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum/InfoMigrants
The Harmanli refugee reception center has 276 children, including 81 unaccompanied minors. June 20, 2023. | Photo: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum/InfoMigrants

“This year especially, the population of asylum seekers (in Harmanli) has increased a lot. As a result, they really need basic items like food, medicine and hygiene,” Khoshseiar said.

As of June 2023, the center had 700 asylum seekers, including 276 children (81 unaccompanied minors), according to Mariana Tosheva, president of the Bulgarian National Refugee Agency. Most come from Syria and many spent a year or more in Turkey before arriving in Bulgaria.

Tosheva says the Harmanli center has the space to accommodate a total of 3,650 migrants, but resources are stretched to the limit.

“We are really facing a lack of financial and human resources,” Toshiva said. InfoMigrants.

Learn more: Exclusive: Corruption and criminal networks permeate migration and asylum in Bulgaria

Security guards the entrance to the Harmanli refugee reception center – the largest in Bulgaria.  June 20, 2023. |  Photo: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum/InfoMigrants
Security guards the entrance to the Harmanli refugee reception center – the largest in Bulgaria. June 20, 2023. | Photo: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum/InfoMigrants

Bulgaria unprepared for increase in asylum applications

In January 2023, the national refugee agency cut 100 employees. Today, 274 remaining employees are spread across the six refugee reception centers and the general administration of Bulgaria. “So you can imagine the shortage,” she said, adding that UN agencies and NGOs were helping to provide essentials like bed linen, clothing and hygiene products.

At the end of 2022, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) recorded a total of 176,316 refugees, 11,185 asylum seekers and 1,162 stateless people in the Balkan country. Additionally, since the start of the war in Ukraine, 1.3 million refugees from the war-torn country have transited through Bulgaria.

“Bulgaria received some 20,000 asylum applications last year – the highest number in a single year in 30 years of recorded statistics,” said Boris Cheshirkov of OHCHR Bulgaria. InfoMigrants. The main countries of origin for asylum seekers were Syria, Afghanistan and Morocco (Ukrainians are exempt from the asylum application process).

The takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2021 and the ongoing conflict in Syria are pushing people to seek refuge in Europe. Ongoing economic and political instability in neighboring Turkey – including the devastating aftermath of February’s earthquake – is also pushing Syrians previously living in Turkey to cross the border into Bulgaria.

“This creates pressure on the Bulgarian asylum system, including the already difficult conditions in asylum centers, as well as access to services such as health,” Cheshirkov said.

Learn more: Exclusive: Why are pushbacks of migrants from Bulgaria to Turkey skyrocketing?

“Bulgaria cannot accommodate so many refugees”

Khoshseiar believes Bulgaria’s small population of 7 million means the Balkan country is not ready for increase in the number of refugees. Although he feels happy and safe in Bulgaria after escaping political persecution in his native Iran, he feels pessimistic about Bulgaria’s current refugee resettlement capabilities. The social worker said he has seen the number of arrivals at Harmanli triple since 2020.

“It is not possible for the authorities to keep all these people…Bulgaria cannot accommodate so many refugees,” he said, adding: “We know that Bulgaria is one of the countries the poorest in the European Union.

A vehicle belonging to the Bulgarian gendarmerie (special police force with military status) in front of the Harmanli refugee reception center.  June 20, 2023. |  Photo: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum/InfoMigrants
A vehicle belonging to the Bulgarian gendarmerie (special police force with military status) in front of the Harmanli refugee reception center. June 20, 2023. | Photo: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum/InfoMigrants

Bulgaria, located on an important route for migrants from the Middle East and Asia to Europe, is generally only used as a transit corridor for those hoping to continue west to richer economies like Germany and France.

“When they (migrants) see that they don’t have much luck here, they will decide to leave,” Khoshseiar said, adding: “I think that even if the government wants to do something, they cannot because they don’t.” have enough capacity for this. »

*Name changed to protect identity

All research and interviews were conducted between June and August 2023, and on-the-ground reporting in Bulgaria was conducted between June 18 and 24, 2023.



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