Living conditions in refugee camps in Bulgaria are improving and more accommodation is on the way, but the process of granting official refugee status continues to be slow.
There was a significant increase in 2013 in the number of refugees coming to Bulgaria from the Middle East and North Africa, mainly from Syria because of the crisis there.
The government was sharply criticised by international and human rights organisations for inadequacies in providing proper accommodation and living standards, and for tardiness in the process of granting refugee status.
Responses included changing the leadership of the State Agency for Refugees and emergency measures to improve accommodation. The government also embarked on a project, now mired in controversy because of the large spending and delays, to build a fence between Bulgaria and Turkey to stem the flow of refugees.
According to a March 16 report by local television station bTV, deputy interior minister Vassil Marinov said that at the end of March, there would be accommodation for 6000 refugees.
At the moment, each month about 100 to 120 people were entering the country illicitly and between 150 and 200 people were being expelled.
But in spite of government promises that the process of granting refugee status would be speeded up, at the Harmanli refugee shelter, currently accommodating 1300 people, only 18 had been granted refugee status in the past six months.
The problem was not confined to Harmanli, the report said.
Of a total of 7144 requests for refugee status in 2013, just more than a third had been granted.
Until recently, there were not enough qualified people to conduct interviews with those seeking refugee status.
Now, more specialists had been provided and it was expected that by the end of the month, the work would be speeded up, the report said.
BTV interviewed Alina Oskan, who had been in Harmanli for five months with her two children, waiting for the granting of official status so that she could move on to Germany and reunite with her husband.
“My energy and patience are exhausted,” she said. “Five months have passed in the counting of days. And every day I say, ‘it will happen tomorrow’. Only my children console me.”
The situation of Abdulahamid Musk was similar. His family had remained in Turkey.
“The war for me now is psychological. My wife and two daughters, for the fourth month, are somewhere in Turkey. This is misery, and I cannot get the status to try to fetch them. This is terrible,” he said.
To alleviate tensions in the camp and under pressure for international organisations, the State Agency for Refugees had been forced to allow the migrants to freely leave the camp, at least during the day. This, however, had led to tension in the town of Harmanli.
March 15 also saw a peaceful demonstration by Syrians in Bulgaria outside the country’s embassy in Sofia to mark the third anniversary of the beginning of the uprising in Syria. March 18 marks three years since the outbreak of mass protests in the Syrian city of Deraa.
The Free Syria Association issued a reminder that as a result of the crisis in that country, more than 140 000 people had been killed.
Syrians in Bulgaria called for a speedy resolution of the conflict and a new democratic state.
A participant in the protest outside the Syrian embassy, Ahmed Horo, said, “first stop the war, the bloodshed, because this has been going on for three years. The regime is unforgiving, and makes no distinction between civilians, between adults and children. We want a Syria that is free and democratic and a new constitution for Syria. Every citizen should have rights in the constitution”.
Meanwhile, IsraAID, an Israeli civilian disaster relief organisation, was to send a team to Bulgaria on March 17 to help the country with its growing Syrian refugee population, now numbering 11 000, the Times of Israel reported.
The mission will provide food and supplies, as well as assist the authorities in constructing a program to improve the psycho-social wellbeing of the refugees, the organisation said.
The programme, sponsored by B’nai B’rith International and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and implemented in conjunction with The Shai Fund, marks the first IsraAID mission to Europe.
(Photo: Ben Melrose/V Photo Agency)