Syrian refugees in Bulgaria fleeing the violent conflagration in their own country are not having it easy as hosting facilities are strained beyond capacity.
More than 1400 Syrians have sought refuge in Bulgaria, about 700 in August alone, and somewhere between 40 and 60 Syrians cross the border into Bulgaria daily, according to Interior Ministry figures.
These figures represent a mere fraction of the vast numbers of people displaced by the violence as the Assad regime conducts a bloody campaign against rebels, but for Bulgaria, the numbers have proved more than the country can cope with.
In all, there are about 3000 refugees in Bulgaria and all five shelters in the country are already overcrowded.
The difficult living conditions in the centres are straining relations among the refugees themselves, as they face overcrowded communal bathrooms, preparing food themselves and with many of the refugees being young children, the Bulgarian Red Cross’s Mariana Stoyanova told public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television on September 7 2013.
Refugee Mohammed Yousef, who has been in Bulgaria for six months, told BNT that he had been sent from the holding centre at Busmantsi to the asylum centre in Sofia but, like his compatriot Ali Hassan, who also spoke to BNT, there had been no room for them as when they arrived, there were already 14 people to a room.
Until the previous week, he had been sleeping in a cheap hotel in Sofia but then his money had run out and he was living on the street, Yousef said.
“We came from Syria to Bulgaria because we thought things were stable here. But we have no work, we are sleeping in abandoned buildings. It is a big problem, what will happen to us?” Hassan said.
Asylum-seekers can be released from Migration Directorate centres if they can prove a residential address, if a landlord is willing to accept refugees at that address.
There were such cases in Bulgaria, but they were rare, Boris Cheshirkov of the UN High Commission for Refugees told BNT.
“We are currently working for a general system of protection in all EU member states. It will ensure the same criteria for admission of refugees and provide protection,” Cheshirkov said.
According to a September 7 report by Nova Televizia, 32 Syrians at the centre for temporary accommodation of foreigners in Lyubimets had declared a hunger strike in protest against the slowness of the procedure for recognition of their refugee status in the country.
One of the Syrians told Nova TV that he had been in the camp for 44 days and wanted refugee status in order to live a normal life beyond the walls of the centre.
But the procedure for being granted refugee status could last up to six months, a period that the protesters were not prepared to wait.
“We will strike until they give us freedom. I really do not want to cause trouble and break the rules, but the situation here is indescribable,” said the protester, identified as Tarek.
In response to the report, the Interior Ministry said that Bulgaria’s State Agency for Refugees was seeking ways to ease the procedures and to improve living conditions.
Public broadcaster Bulgarian National Radio, in a September 7 report, quoted interior minister Tsvetlin Yovchev as saying, “The capacity of the country has been used and we are in an emergency situation”.
If the necessary measures were not taken, Bulgaria would face a humanitarian crisis, Yovchev was quoted as saying.
According to BNR, former barracks and deserted rural schools would be used to provide shelter to hundreds of refugees. Earlier media reports said that consideration was being given to accommodating refugees in cheap hotels in Sofia.
The issue is referred to in the “11-point plan” approved at a meeting of the cabinet’s security council recently, which mentions looking at buildings that could be adapted to be used as accommodation for refugees.
Bulgarian authorities also were focusing on the necessity of securing public order because of the presence of people of different political and religious views and of different ethnic origin amongst the refugees.
Two tactical headquarters which will function in co-operation with various state institutions have been established.
Meanwhile, Bulgarians have been showing their compassion through fundraising initiatives.
At the “East in the Park” festival in Borisova Gradina in central Sofia, the Arabis foundation arranged the acceptance of donations and the raising of funds by the sale of jewellery and clothing made by refugee women.
The funds raised at the event, which was attended by representatives of the Syrian diaspora and the Council of Refugee Women, would be used to buy essentials for people in the refugee centres in the country, BNT said on September 7.
The same day, local television station bTV said that a campaign had begun in Bulgaria to raise assistance for Syrian children in the country.
A range of items was being sought – utensils, shoes for any age and gender, blankets, food, medicines, formula, nappies, strollers, toys and books.
According to the bTV report, those able to make donations should take or send them to:
– The Agency for European Integration, 10 Suedinenie Boulevard, office 1, telephone 038/62 0054, mobile 0888 139 333, e-mail [email protected]
– The Give a Smile Foundation (Фондация “Подари усмивка”), 16 Georgi Sava Rakovski Street, office 3, Dimitrovgrad
– The Alliance for Regional and Civil Initiatives, first floor, 167A Evlogi Georgiev Boulevard, Sofia, telephone 02/944 6389, mobile 0889 716 937, e-mail: [email protected]
– “Four Seasons” (“Четири сезона”) shop, 154A Knyaz Boris I Street, Sofia.
(Archive photo of illegal migrants intercepted at the Bulgarian border: Interior Ministry)