The Syrian refugee crisis is continuing to test Bulgaria’s capacity to cope, which is still coming up short, even after emergency measures to make available additional accommodation for use as temporary shelters.
In the past few weeks, after it seemed likely that the United States would intervene militarily against the Assad regime, Bulgaria was among countries to experience a significant increase in the number of refugees arriving to escape strife-torn Syria.
The influx has exposed an apparent lack of planning and resources to deal with such a sudden upswing in refugees.
Speaking on September 29 to public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television (BNT), Yordanka Fandukova, mayor of capital city Sofia, said that the concentration of refugees in the city poses certain risks “which we are not ready to face”.
She said that more than half the refugees who had entered Bulgaria were now in Sofia.
Most were at the refugee centre in the Ovcha Kupel residential area. The centre in the Vruzhdebna area had a capacity for 350 people and the newly-opened Voenna Ramma shelter, made available by a cabinet decision transferring control of the property from the Defence Ministry to the State Agency for Refugees, had a capacity for 500 people. The latter centre already was hosting 150 people.
“Citizens have certain concerns,” Fandukova said.
“They want security and calm, they want more stepped-up police presence. We all realise that this is a humanitarian problem, but we need to have he needed conditions so as to be able to welcome the refugees and to do our best to minimise the risks as much as possible,” she said.
BNT reported Sofia police figures as showing that in areas where refugees were being accommodated, there had been an increase in crime, but this was mainly petty crime such as theft of food.
Currently, there are several charity initiatives calling on the public to donate to assist the refugees. Arguably the largest is that being run by the Bulgarian Red Cross (BRC), to which each Interior Ministry update on the refugee situation makes reference.
Private individuals have joined in efforts to assist refugees by arranging donations through social networks such as Facebook.
Speaking on September 27, BRC chairman Hristo Grigorov said that the refugees being accommodated at the shelters in Sofia and in Elhovo were facing a very difficult situation, lacking enough food while some of the children did not have proper footwear.
Grigorov said that the BRC had requested financial assistance from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva to cope with the most vulnerable group of 2000 asylum seekers in Bulgaria.
The question of assistance, in various forms at various levels, has been the subject of mixed signals.
With a number of members of the current national government speaking about the refugee issue, for now it remains unclear, given the contradictions among the cabinet ministers, what stage has been reached in requesting assistance from the EU.
Local media reported that it had become clear after a meeting on September 27 between European Commissioner Johannes Hahn and Plamen Oresharski, occupant of the prime minister’s chair in the current government, that Bulgaria would not be able to apply for the allocation of part of the unabsorbed EU funds for Bulgaria to be used to cope with the Syrian refugees situation in the country.
According to a report in Duma, mouthpiece for the governing Bulgarian Socialist Party, by September 27 Bulgaria had accommodated in various parts of the country a total of 4798 refugees, leaving only 202 places until the limit on accommodation was reached, and at the rate of arrivals, this point would be reached on September 29.
(Syrian asylum-seekers waiting to be registered with border police at Elhovo, near Bulgaria’s border with Turkey. Photo: UNHCR/D.Kashavelov)