Year in Review: Europe’s migrant crisis and Bulgaria

Written by on December 28, 2015 in Perspectives - Comments Off on Year in Review: Europe’s migrant crisis and Bulgaria

More than a million migrants and refugees arrived in Europe by land and sea in 2015, in a crisis that challenged – and will continue to challenge – the very principles and workings of what is called, sometimes even by its detractors, the European project.

Facing the largest displaced persons crisis since World War 2, some of the countries along the main refugee routes resorted to tactics reminiscent of the era of the continent of the world wars and the Cold War, the continent pre the notion of “borderless Europe”, as fences once again were hastily erected at frontiers and some called out the military to bolster border protection.

Specially-summoned meetings of European leaders became, paradoxically, near-routine in 2015. Let alone those that were about Greece and the euro, leaders of EU and non-EU countries were brought together time and again in meetings in a variety of formats. Even more so than had been the case with Greece, the issue of “migrants and refugees” – to put together the two nouns the use of either of which tended to show the outlook of the speaker – exposed deep divisions of approach in Europe.

Beleaguered Greece was itself a key part of the wider story. Towards the end of 2015, it had become clear that the country, which already had sufficient troubles, had overtaken Italy by far as the main landing spot for those taking the hazardous and often fatal sea route to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa, especially via Turkey. Going by the records of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Greece received more than 80 per cent of all migrant and refugee arrivals in Europe in 2015. Italy, where Lampedusa island in particular had become emblematic of the refugee crisis in preceding years, accounted for 15 per cent of arrivals.

For those wanting to see figures about refugee and migrant arrivals in Europe in 2015, the Wikipedia entry on the topic, as well as the websites of the IOM and UNHCR, are instructive. The parade of numbers becomes mind-boggling; as carefully recorded by the IOM in particular, the number of deaths, of men, women and children, in attempted sea crossings is tragically moving. The photograph of Aylan Kurdi, washed up dead on a beach at the age of three, resonated as a deeply disturbing image of a failure of humanity to not only cope with the crisis, but to even begin to address its causes.

Against the scale of the estimated million arrivals, the number of people who came across into Bulgaria seems miniscule – somewhere in excess of 30 000. That number, however, is triple the total number of refugee arrivals in Bulgaria in 2013 and 2014 combined, and bear in mind that it was in 2013 that Bulgaria experienced a sharp increase in refugee arrivals, significantly more than in previous years, mainly as a result of the crisis in Syria under the Assad regime.

The relatively low number of people arriving in Bulgaria was reportedly a consequence of several factors, and not merely that it was not geographically on one of the main Balkan routes – Greece-Macedonia-Serbia-Hungary/Croatia-Slovenia-Austria.

Part of the reason was the steps taken by Bulgaria, to extend its fence at the frontier with Turkey, to deploy military personnel to provide logistical support to Border Police, to deply additional Interior Ministry staff to the border. Further, Bulgaria – especially in the form of its Prime Minister Boiko Borissov – repeatedly praised Turkey for holding back further refugees from crossing into Bulgaria.

But moreover, these reasons were only part of the story. Repeatedly, Bulgaria was the target of allegations that it was using strongarm tactics to prevent migrants entering the country, and allegedly police and officials were physically assaulting migrants found traversing the country on their way west. These allegations were raised by, among others, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and in a report commissioned by Oxfam, the Belgrade Center for Human Rights.

This last-mentioned report alleged that it had established from interviewing 100 people, most of them from Afghanistan as well as Syria and Iraq, claimed to have been targets of extortion, robbery, physical violence, threats of deportation and police dog attacks. Most of these alleged abuses took place in border areas, particularly that with Turkey. All interviewees, except those who had not had any contact with the police, alleged ill-treatment in Bulgaria.

Bulgaria made international headlines in October 2015 when Border Police shot dead one of a group of Afghan migrants, in circumstances that remain disputed. It was a sign of the typical divisiveness of the issue that some raised a petition to award a medal to the policeman who fired the fatal shot.

This death was not the only one involving Bulgaria and refugees. Already, in March, Mohammed Jawad Kadima (30) and Elias Murad (35) died of exposure at the border, allegedly because they were unable to move because of severe injuries to their limbs.

As in other European countries, the migrant crisis was seized on by nationalist and far-right politicians in Bulgaria and figured, to some extent, in the autumn mayoral and municipal elections campaign, even though municipalities have no authority over refugee policy. The issue, however, hardly played for these far-right and nationalist forces, as Borissov’s centre-right GERB party emerged the big winner in the battle for Bulgaria’s major cities and towns.

Borissov and his government, however, hardly took a soft and yielding line on refugees and migrants and the question of the response of Europe and the EU in particular. (Deputy Prime Minister Meglena Kouneva did, however, try to link the issue of Bulgaria’s border security performance with finally getting the country into Schengen, tilting at the set of windmills so long and so far distant.)

Amid the dispute among EU member countries over the migrant allocation quota system, Bulgaria argued vehemently for a country’s economic state to be taken into account in deciding such quotas. Emerging from one of the meetings of EU ministers on the topic in the first half of the year, Interior Minister Roumyana Buchvarova said that the country had succeeded in getting the number of redeployed refugees it should accept reduced.

Bulgaria’s current commitment is to take in a total of 1302 reallocated migrants: 100 in 2015, 500 in 2016 and 702 in 2017. It is, of course, another matter that apparently few asylum-seekers are said to have much interest in being accommodated in Bulgaria, preferring the wealthier west. It seems that the same reason that Bulgaria opposed being asked to house “too many” refugees, on the grounds of hardly being anywhere near to the wealth levels of much of the rest of the EU, is the same one why most asylum-seekers are not keen on coming to the country.

In July, Interior Minister Buchvarova also highlighted the role of organised crime in the networks moving refugees and migrants illegally across the borders of Europe and Bulgaria itself (it also became routine, in 2015, for the ministry periodically to announce that it had conducted “special operations”, especially in the centre of Sofia, against illegal migration).

Buchvarova said that “a spontaneous process which occurred due to different conflicts is gradually and constantly turning to an assisted migratory process. The migration of such large masses of people is practically organised in advance. We are facing transnational organised crime groups for smuggling which are accumulating substantial financial resources. Once established, they can be used for other forms of organised crime as well”.

At the same meeting in July, Interior Ministry chief secretary Georgi Kostov said that almost 20 per cent of the national budget for internal security was being used for border protection.

Regardless of the restricted budget, in 2015 the second phase of the integrated system for surveillance of the Bulgarian-Turkish land border had come into operation.

“We also have integrated border surveillance system at the maritime border and a special air surveillance unit. The establishment of an automated surveillance system in the most vulnerable section along the Bulgarian-Serbian border (the area of responsibility of Bregovo BPD) is planned for the next year,” Kostov said.

He said that the 30km-long “engineering facility” along the most risky section of the Bulgarian-Turkish border had been functioning since September 2014 and he said that the attempts at illegal border crossing have decreased by seven times there.

“The flows have been redirected to the border crossing points where there is no risk for the life and health of the migrants,” according to Kostov. He said that following a decree by the Cabinet, work had started to extend the facility a further 132 km, planned to finish in 2016.

Interior Ministry figures also showed, hardly suprising, that most attempts at illegal crossings of the Bulgarian border out of the country were at the frontier with Serbia. In the latter part of the year, it also became clear that many of those who had been accommodated in refugee centres had quit them to try to head west.

Borissov referred to this in November, while at the Valletta summit on migration. He said there were cases where refugees had been apprehended six or seven times trying to leave the country. Each time they had been returned to the refugee centres, and each time they had again attempted to cross the border out of the country, he said.

In Valletta, Borissov was skeptical about the result of Germany resuming implementation of the Dublin agreement, by which asylum-seekers in an EU country may be returned to the EU country where they were first registered. Pointing to the situation where asylum-seekers repeatedly tried to leave Bulgaria, Borissov said that he would not “build prisons” to keep migrants by force in Bulgaria.

A few days earlier, Borissov had joined his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic and Romanian counterpart Victor Ponta in saying that if countries such as Germany, Austria and others closed their borders to migrants, we won’t allow our countries to become a buffer zone for millions of migrants stranded between Turkey and the new barriers that may follow…we’re also prepared to close our borders immediately,” Borissov said.

“The boosted construction of fences in Europe worries us. We declare that they have our full European solidarity, but we are not blind and if more countries go over to this experiment of closing borders, leaving refugees with us, we will not agree. It’s not about money,” he said.

Another frequently-heard Bulgarian voice on the refugee issue was that of President Rossen Plevneliev, who made repeated calls for a unified European response to the crisis.

It was one of the key themes in Plevneliev’s address to the United Nations in September.

“As long as there is conflict in Syria, the refugee crisis will not go away. The efforts of the entire international community should be focused on ending hostilities in conflict zones, supporting institution building, the rule of law and respect for human rights. The role of neighbouring states is also of great importance.”

Plevneliev told the UN that Europe is currently focused on the establishment of a solidarity scheme which will allow the fair relocation and resettlement of refugees among all EU member states.

“We need to establish a relevant mechanism in order to distinguish those in need from those just looking for better life. The migrant crisis is a source of security concern. Apart from the fear of infiltration of extremists on European soil, it has once again raised the issue of illegal human trafficking which requires our urgent attention and concerted action.”

In the face of the unprecedented migratory flow towards Europe the EU has to demonstrate solidarity and responsibility, he said.

“In the EU we need not just to address the crisis but to solve it, led by European unity and our common desire for a peaceful and free Europe. The European Union represents the largest area of human rights, peace and democracy in the world. It is a family that stands together,” Plevneliev said.

As the year headed towards its end, Borissov played tour guide to visiting UK prime minister David Cameron, showing off the facilities and procedures being used by Bulgaria at the Turkish frontier. Cameron uttered words of praise for Bulgaria, in turn attracting a sharp response from critics of Bulgaria’s alleged strongarm tactics against migrants.

When EU leaders met for their last scheduled European Council of the year, the migrant crisis was, inevitably, on the agenda. The conclusions approved at the December 17 meeting set the tone for what follows in the document: “Over the past months, the European Council has developed a strategy aimed at stemming the unprecedented migratory flows Europe is facing. However, implementation is insufficient and has to be speeded up. For the integrity of Schengen to be safeguarded it is indispensable to regain control over the external borders. Deficiencies, notably as regards hotspots, relocation and returns, must be rapidly addressed”.

Borissov, already at the summit in November, had emanated a sense of weariness and frustration at the succession of European meetings: “We do not see light at the end of the tunnel. Meetings that we are holding every three days in Brussels are empty and meaningless. There is no horizon, no solution,” Borissov said.

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About the Author

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015).