Bulgaria’s authorities have been scrambling to seek to defend their handling of the Syrian refugee situation in the country, after a hidden camera expose and two official inspections by outside agencies found appalling conditions in refugee shelters in Sofia.
Footage by a team from public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television (BNT) on October 13 showed, among other problems, poor hygiene conditions at one of the shelters in the capital city.
Bulgaria has proved unprepared for the large increase in the number of refugees in the country in terms of providing accommodation and other resources. The current government has blamed the former one, while rushing through emergency steps to host and process people seeking formal refugee status.
The head of the State Agency for Refugees, Nikolai Chirpanliev, the 56-year-old retired colonel appointed at the beginning of October after the cabinet fired his predecessor for non-performance, told BNT on October 15 that conditions in the refugee shelters in the Sofia residential area of Ovcha Kupel as well as those in Banya and Pastrogor were “better than in the countries refugees come from”.
He said that rapid reorganization was underway and two new commanders would be appointed on October 15 at the centres in Sofia’s Vrazhdebna and Voenna Rampa camps. These two camps were the subjects of highly critical reports about the conditions there.
He said that representatives of the Syrian community, doctors, would be appointed on temporary contracts to be at the camps day and night and to co-operate with the specialists there.
Living conditions at the camps were to be improved, Chirpanliev said. He said that heating would be put on at the centre at Voenna Rampa.
The State Agency for Refugees was expected to report how it had used European Union funds in recent years, he said.
An October 15 report by daily Sega said that the accommodation centres for refugees in Voenna Rampa and Vrazhdebna had been recently renovated by a company appointed by the cabinet without calling a competition because of the urgency of the work. The cabinet had granted 565 000 leva with which to patch up the building and deliver food.
The report quoted the company’s director, Emil Ivkov, as saying that the company had been given the contract on September 23 but had waited four days for the ownership of the property to be transferred from the Defence Ministry.
Ivkov was reported to have said that the work had begun on September 28 and was completed after the arrival of several buses carrying refugees. The report said, however, that according to the refugee agency website the first people had arrived at Vrazhdebna several days earlier, and that by September 25 there were already 475 people there. It was not clear how under these circumstances a major overhaul was done, the report said.
According to the company director, repairs included renovation of bathrooms, plumbing, wiring and alterations, as well as other work. He said that the work was done against a much smaller amount, which he declined to disclose, and accused residents of being responsible for the poor conditions in which they were living.
At the other camp, Voenna Rampa, the company had dealt only with the heating. Other companies had worked on the plumbing and electrical wiring, but he declined to name them, according to Sega.
Ivkov was quoted as saying that his employees had worked morning to night to complete the work and at least two representatives of the UN High Commission for Refugees had been present.
The Bulgarian representative of the UNHCR told BNT that the commission had not participated in the approval of the buildings, but quite the opposite, had from the outset argued that conditions at the centres were very meagre. The UNHCR said that the company appeared to have confused UNHCR representatives with employees of the State Agency for Refugees.
The UNHCR had visited Vrazhdebna on September 24 and October 11 and Voenna Rampa on October 1. It came to a number of critical conclusions – an insufficient number of beds, bed linen, blankets, lack of food and kitchen appliances, event to boil water and make baby formula, inadequate bathrooms and unsanitary conditions in the centre as a whole, the need for the repair of the heating system at Vrazhdebna and a lack of staff permanently on the spot of the centres.
These conclusions are similar to the description given by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee after its visits.
Meanwhile, Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandukova estimated that the refugees were costing the capital city’s budget more than 100 000 leva a month, on items such as security and community policing.
On October 15, the Interior Ministry issued the latest update on illegal crossings of the border from Turkey into Bulgaria, by far the main point for illegal entries.
From 6am on October 14 to 6am on October 15, a total of 194 people were found in the Turkish – Bulgarian border area by Border Police. Of the 194, a total of 84 were Syrians.
The ministry said that the total accommodation capacity of State Agency for Refugees and Interior Ministry facilities was for 3740 people, and this currently was exceeded by 139.
In a statement on October 14, the Interior Ministry said that between 6am on October 11 and 6am on October 14, Border Police had detained 342 people in the Bulgarian-Turkish border area, of whom 223 were Syrian citizens.