With the number of refugees now close to 10 000 and the issue having long since turned into a political football, Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev told Parliament on November 6 that the government was “willing to accept any good ideas” about where to accommodate them.
This was an apparent reference not only to existing accommodation for refugees in Bulgaria continuing to overflow, but also to criticism of the government – especially from ultra-nationalist quarters – on the issue.
Speaking during Question Time in the National Assembly, Yovchev said that at the moment there were 9567 illegal migrants in Bulgaria. He said that 695 were in detention, a further 1078 were in special refugee centres and 4053 were in State Agency for Refugees centres (given that these latter figures add up to 5826, Yovchev did not specify where the other 3741 people are).
Also on November 6, the Interior Ministry said that there were 4000 refugees in accommodation facilities of the ministry and the State Agency for Refugees, and capacity of these facilities was exceeded by 1131.
Yovchev repeated to Parliament, for about 20 minutes, an outline of the “new action plan” that he gave a news conference about on November 4.
At the news conference, he said that the first objective was to reduce the number of illegal migrants, by limiting the number of people entering the country and speeding the rate of removal from Bulgaria of “those who have no reason to be here”.
The second main objective, Yovchev said on November 4, was to guarantee the security of Bulgarian citizens and limit the risks. To this end, police presence in areas populated by refugees would be stepped up, he said.
The objectives of the plan include refugees becoming self-sustaining, contributing to the social system and effective integration in Bulgarian society.
He said that there were “efforts” directed towards increasing patrols on Bulgaria’s border with Turkey as well an increased surveillance of Bulgaria’s sea borders.
Yovchev said that people coming in would be divided into three groups – the first, those about whom the State Agency for Refugees should make a quick decision, when apparently they have no reason to be in Bulgaria; the second, those whose cases clearly are humanitarian, according to set criteria, such as mothers with children, for whom there will be an accelerated procedure; and the third group, people about whom there is not enough data and who will be restricted to accommodation facilities pending a decision by the State Agency for Refugees.
On November 6, Interior Ministry chief secretary Svetozar Lazarov said 1400 uniformed police would be sent to the border with Turkey. Only Sofia police would be exempt from this border duty, because of the “complicated situation in the capital,” Lazarov said, in a reference to continuing anti-government protests demanding the resignation of the Bulgarian Socialist Party government, as well as pro-government demonstrations backed by the BSP.
Bulgaria’s government has said that it will “push” for the adoption of a common European policy on the refugee issue as well as for the signing of a readmission agreement between the EU and Turkey. The latter would make it possible for people who had entered the country, and by extension the EU, illegally to be returned to the country from which they entered Bulgaria.
Yovchev, in his statements to Parliament on November 6, said that the Cabinet had adopted the package of measures to deal with the crisis created by the increased refugee pressure.
“The crisis is growing and the situation is extremely serious,” Yovchev said. Migration pressure was not decreasing but at times was even increasing. He said that 3500 illegal migrants had been detained in the past month.
Yovchev said that Bulgaria would ask the EU to “exert pressure” on the countries where the largest inflow of refugees to Bulgaria came from.
Asked by ultra-nationalist Ataka party MP Desislav Chukolov about the number of illegal migrants expelled from Bulgaria, Yovchev said that he would present a report on the number of people expelled.
“Many of these people do not have ID documents and there is a need to first get temporary ID documents so as to be returned to their countries. Many countries, however, refuse to accept that their citizens will be returned with a charter flight,” Yovchev said.
Responding to a question about a plan to open a refugee centre in the village of Telish, which had resulted in local protests, Yovchev – who on November 5 visited the village but failed to persuade residents that they should accept the establishment of a refugee centre there – said: “There are many illegal immigrants and people seeking shelter in Bulgaria. We should find places where to shelter them, to provide normal living conditions, and to minimise the risks for the local population. If you have any other constructive idea about where we can settle these people, I will be happy to hear your proposals.”
Also in Parliament, Plamen Oresharski, who was appointed in May to sit in the prime minister’s chair in the current BSP government, said that “to a certain extent I am concerned about the controversial reactions (to the refugee issue) in the country”.
“I believe that authorities are doing their best to soften the consequences. Naturally, when there is a force majeure factor, the comfort is often violated but yet these people come from a military situation and I wish no one such a fate,” Oresharski said.
He said that it was estimated that the package of measures to deal with the inflow of refugees to Bulgaria would cost 20 million leva (about 10 million euro) by the end of this year alone.
“The Bulgarian government hopes that this sum will be partially reimbursed through European solidarity and also by some EU states who declared their desire to aid Bulgaria. It is not realistic to expect that the whole sum could be reimbursed,” Oresharski said. He said that funding for the measures would be provided through restructuring state spending.
* Meanwhile, on November 6 an Algerian illegal migrant who had been sought by police for allegedly stabbing a Bulgarian shop assistant in Sofia on November 1 was detained by Greek police while attempting to cross the Bulgarian-Greek land border.
The stabbing was cited by ultra-nationalists in anti-refugee rallies this past weekend in calls for the expulsion of refugees and the closing of Bulgaria’s borders to them, although in turn statements made at these rallies have led to pre-trial proceedings being opened against six people for hate speech.