Looming Spring: Increased Refugee Movement Expected in Bulgaria

Written by on February 14, 2017 in Bulgaria - No comments

One of hundreds of buses with refugees in Croatia. Photo by Imanuel Marcus.

The ending winter of 2017 was exceptionally cold. Excessive snowfall, blizzards and strong winds made that season a nightmare for many, but especially for refugees. Two Iraqi asylum seekers froze to death in eastern Bulgaria last month, just like a lady from Somalia. In Belgrade, hundreds of refugee men and boys spent the winter in an abandoned warehouse, which did not provide appropriate protection against the cold. Many of them became sick. The Serbian authorities had been warned about the fact that they did not have enough accommodations for refugees, before the winter started. Those warnings were ignored.

During the exceptional winter, illegal deportations took place. A group of refugees nearly froze to death, when they were forced to leave a van, which was supposed to take them to a refugee camp in Serbia, and told to walk to Bulgaria through a forest, at -11 degrees, without appropriate clothing. Only the intervention if one conscientious police officer in Serbia saved those people. This is just one example. NGOs have reported about many cases of this kind as well as illegal push-backs at borders.

At the same time, thousands of refugees seem to have managed to leave Bulgaria towards north-western Europe in spite of the weather and the fact that most borders are closed to them. In the fall of 2016, between 10,000 and 13,000 refugees supposedly were in Bulgaria. Since then, that number has decreased to anywhere between 5,000 and 6,000. NGOs are expecting a lot more movement, once the temperatures start rising.

There are several reasons for the fact that refugees still manage to move. Many of them are taking risks, which have already led to many tragedies. Last year, several refugees drowned in the Danube river while trying to cross into Romania from Bulgaria.

But many asylum seekers pay smugglers to take them across borders. The smugglers seem to be cooperating with the Bulgarian Border Police, which has been rattled by corruption scandals all along. Sky News reports, the Bulgarian police was indeed aiding the smugglers, which is not a big surprise. The Sky reporter spoke to an Iraqi refugee who said he saw Bulgarian police offers open trunks of cars, in which refugees were hiding. But they let them go. Without the Border Police and smugglers cooperating, there would most likely be a lot less movement, especially in winter.

According to refugees, who have made it across Bulgarian borders, smugglers usually take their paying customers to the Serbian border. From there, they walk across mountains, until they are being picked up by other smugglers in Serbia. According to recent statements, some smugglers seem to be keeping a low profile by leaving cars with keys in the ignition on parking spots in Sofia, along with instructions for the journey. In those cases, the refugees drive themselves and leave the cars somewhere.

According to media reports, Serbia is getting ready for an increased number of refugees who will try to enter the country in spring. The Serbs are being supported by Austrian officers and equipment. Several governments, including the Austrian one, have said the so-called Balkan Route, which is supposed to be closed to refugees, was not actually closed. At the same time, the numbers are significantly lower than those in 2015, when up to 10,000 refugees entered Serbia, Croatia and Hungary on a daily basis.

In comparison, Bulgaria never played a big role in the refugee crisis. But it might, mainly for geographical reasons, if Turkey cancels the so-called E.U. Turkey Deal. The United Nations, NGOs and refugees have accused Bulgaria of a lot of irregularities, reaching from robbery and violence on the part of Border Police officers to illegal incarcerations of minors who fled their home countries alone, without their families. Many refugees are trying to avoid the country for those reasons.

One refugee family from Syria might be leaving Bulgaria on a legal basis very soon. That family had been registered in Bulgaria first. The authorities had even provided the family members with a humanitarian status, meaning they could have registered at an address in Bulgaria and stayed. Bu they did not want to and somehow made it to Germany.

But since, according to the Dublin accord, refugees can not apply for asylum in two E.U. countries, the German authorities decided to deport the family back to Bulgaria. One night, many police officers woke them up. One young family member was not present at the refugee accommodation when the officers came. That is why the mother was deported along with three children, while the father and the son, who was missing that night, stayed in Germany. The man later sued the German foreigners registration office and just won the case, which was fought out in front of the administrative court of Hanover. This means, the German province of Lower Saxony might have to pick up the mother and the three children from Bulgaria and take them back to Hanover.

The reason why the Syrians won the court case: The judge was convinced that, as refugees, they would have been subject to persecution and abuse by self-proclaimed “home guards”. The court referred to so-called refugee hunters in southern Bulgarian mountain ranges, whose actions were celebrated by ultra-nationalists, but caused outrage among more sane people in all parts of the world.

By Imanuel Marcus

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