Krassimir Kanev: The Lone Fighter for Human Rights in the Refugee Crisis

Written by on August 21, 2016 in Bulgaria, People - 3 Comments
The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee is an independent non-governmental organization (NGO), based in Sofia. For 24 years, its major goals have been to bring Bulgarian legislation in line with international human rights standards, and to trigger public debates on human rights issues. Not only during the ongoing refugee crisis, this organization is one of the very few important moral-political authorities in Bulgaria. Imanuel Marcus spoke to its chairman, Karassimir Kanev.

Magazine79: We are in a refugee crisis. Why does the Bulgarian press keep on using the word migrants instead? What is the significance of this aspect?

Krassimir Kanev: When you call them refugees, you focus on their plight, in the first place. Many of them are fleeing wars and oppression. They need protection. When you call them migrants, you disregard their plight and focus on them invading Europe.

Magazine79: How does your organization call them?

Krassimir Kanev: We call them refugees.

Magazine79: The “traditional Balkan route” for refugees is basically closed, because of the E.U.-Turkey Deal. Bulgaria was avoided by many refugees, because many of them heard about the treatment in this country. Now that the situation at the borders is different, more and more refugees are coming to Bulgaria, in spite of reports about abuse and radical refugee hunters in the Stradzha mountains. What is the situation down there?

Krassimir Kanev: I would not pay much attention to the activities of those radicals in the mountains. They are marginal and not the major reason why they did not enter Bulgaria much. The main reason is the attitude of the Bulgarian government.

Magazine79: From your perspective, what would the government have to change, in order to make the situation acceptable for refugees?

Krassimir Kanev: It is not like these issues have come up recently, but a long time ago. To put it this way: They do not want to stay in Bulgaria, partially for the same reasons Bulgarians do not want to stay in Bulgaria. Many Bulgarians go abroad, to seek employment and welfare in Germany or other countries. When you have Bulgarians, who are ready to leave their families and friends, in order to go abroad, what do you expect from someone who comes from the other side of the world? Most refugees want to go to an affluent country, where their prospects for integration and for developing a better life are better. That is understandable.

Magazine79: I am sure you know the German NGO Pro Asyl. About a year ago, they released an alarming report about the treatment in Bulgaria. They say, lots of refugees complained about abuse on the part of the authorities. Then there was another statement, only a week ago, by Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner, who accused the Bulgarian government of supporting intolerance towards refugees. Is all of that criticism justified?

Krassimir Kanev: Yes, it is justified. We have received such reports as well. We can argue about the extent of those abuses. We will never find out. But there is no doubt that there are push-backs, there is ill-treatment upon detention and, most wide-spread, there is robbery, of their personal belongings.

Magazine79: So the police are robbing refugees?

Krassimir Kanev: The Bulgarian Border Police and other police forces rob them. They “confiscate” their possessions and their mobile phones. You can find those phones on sales, at pawn shops in southern Bulgaria. We have received numerous complaints of this kind, from refugees. They also extort their money. And people close to the police organise their smuggling. That is one of the reasons there is a constant flow across the border, in the fenced area.

Magazine79: As you know, the heads of the Bulgarian border police were just fired, effectively.

Krassimir Kanev: We had, and still have, those networks of traffickers, smugglers of contraband. To a certain extent, these networks, which smuggle refugees, are the same. In any case, there is involvement by the border police.

Magazine79: Let’s go back to U.N. High Commissioner Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein. He also said, refugees were being arrested and locked up. That way, he said, there was no way forward or back for those individuals. He criticized this practice harshly, as well, at a press conference in New York City.

Krassimir Kanev: Many are detained, depending on the circumstances. In some cases, detention is justified, in other cases, it is not. The most concerning type of detention is the imprisonment, with criminal charges, for illegal border crossing. This part of our law and we have many refugees serving prison sentences. They are usually the ones who attempted to cross the border from Bulgaria to Serbia. Typically, they would receive such a sentence. Usually, it is conditional imprisonment, upon arrival. Later, when they try to find their way towards western Europe, they would get a second sentence. That second sentence enforces the first one. That is how we have people convicted to prison sentences, for basically nothing.

Magazine79: So, do you believe the law has to be changed?

Krassimir Kanev: Yes. For many years, we have campaigned for the abolition of the penal responsibility for unlawful border crossings. But, we have failed in the past. Now, in this situation, our demands are not going to be met either. On the contrary: There are political parties and circles who demand even harsher measures. There are those who say, border guards should be allowed to shoot and kill people. Ataka and the Patriotic Front are campaigning for this.

Magazine79: Bulgaria is not a very multicultural country, compared to England, for example, or the United States of America. Where does the hatred come from? And I’m not talking about the government now, but about the Bulgarian people.

Krassimir Kanev: This is a common thing about eastern European countries. For decades, they were closed societies. Bulgaria was formed as a state that belonged to Bulgarians. There were no foreigners whatsoever. Very few lived here, under communism, for five decades. Many Bulgarians are not used to seeing people coming from abroad, with different religions, from different cultures. In addition, this is a Balkan society that has its mythology, its history of repression, of lots of wars. Then there were fascism, communism and mafia capitalism. Over the past decades, we have never been a genuine, democratic society, which would respect human rights, diversity or offer equal opportunities, for everybody. This neither applied to Bulgarian citizens, nor to foreigners.

Magazine79: I wanted to ask you about the Roma minority as well. When discussing this subject with non-Roma Bulgarians, in most cases, you get the same answer, from almost everyone: “They are lazy, they don’t want to work and they stink.” First of all, that’s inaccurate and mean. But, it seems, neither Bulgarians of Romani origin, nor other Bulgarians know that integration is the only way. There is no alternative to integration. How can the hatred, the discrimination against Roma, and all of the issues in this field, be overcome?

Krassimir Kanev: That is a difficult question. It should be overcome, because there is no alternative, indeed. Integration, into the Bulgarian society, is the only way. I think there is some progress in this regard. We have more educated Roma, more of them have entered the middle class, more a better educated. Actually, we now have more Roma with university education that at any other time, in the history of Bulgaria. One problem, however, is that many of those who educate themselves and their children lose their Roma identity. They start calling themselves Bulgarians or Turks. And those who remain are the poor, the isolated, who live in the Roma neighbourhoods. Why is this happening? Because being a Bulgarian Rom carries a big stigma, in this society. When a people have the opportunity to escape from this, they usually will. There are also integrated Roma who do help the poor and uneducated, but they are not a majority.

Magazine79: Thanks a lot, Mr. Kanev.

Link to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee.

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