More than half of Bulgarians support to one degree or another “migrant hunters”, the self-proclaimed “citizens’ patrols” by vigilante groups who capture and force refugees out of the country, according to the results of a poll by Alpha Research.
However, a significant proportion of those polled believed that while “citizens’ patrols” should be able to arrest migrants, this should be done in conjunction with the police, according to Alpha Research, arguably one of few reliable opinion polling agencies in Bulgaria.
Bulgaria has been preoccupied in the past week by the fallout from an amateur video showing a group of men from Afghanistan being captured, forced to the ground, tied up and abusively – and in broken English – being shouted at to go back across the Turkish border.
The video, publicised widely in local media, on social networks and in the foreign media, caused a domestic political storm as Prime Minister Boiko Borissov appeared to flip-flop on the issue – denying during the week that he had expressed support for the “migrant hunters” – while a range of Bulgarian senior officials have underlined the illegality of the actions of the so-called “citizens’ patrols”.
Petar “The Feathers” Nizamov, who posted the amateur video online, is under house arrest pending trial on charges of illegally detaining the group of men from Afghanistan. He faces three counts of this charge, which carries a prison term of up to six years.
The Alpha Research poll, the results of which were reported by local television station Nova Televizia on April 17, found that Bulgarians’ fears about refugees were rising, because of the idea that it was possible that a huge refugee wave would head towards the country. Most did not want the country to be involved in hosting refugee centres.
At the same time, however, the number of Bulgarians willing to assist refugees by donating clothes and other essential commodities had risen, the poll found.
Asked whether they were in favour of “citizens’s arrests” of refugees, 29.4 per cent of those polled said yes, while 25.4 per cent said that they “somewhat” approve.
Those strongly against added up to 17.5 per cent and those leaning towards disapproval amounted to 25.4 per cent, according to Alpha Research.
While 54.8 per cent of those polled said that citizens should help to arrest illegal refugees but this should be co-ordinated with the police, 28.5 per cent said that such arrests were the sole responsibility of the state. A total of 16.2 per cent believed that anyone should be able to act alone in detaining refugees.
Alpha Research found that over the past two to three years, the number of people who thought that refugees were a risk to national security had increased by close to a quarter. In 2013, those holding this view were 55.5 per cent. This had now increased to 79.4 per cent.
Almost all fears about refugees had increased over the same period. The percentage of those who thought that refugees would increase crime had gone up from 69.3 per cent to 90.4 per cent.
Those who believed that refugees would mean a health risk had risen from 67.6 per cent to 75.4 per cent.
The number who thought that refugees would mean terrorist attacks had risen from 46 per cent to 86.4 per cent.
The only concern that had decreased was regarding the idea that refugees would take away Bulgarians’ jobs; this dropped from 44.5 per cent to 38.6 per cent.
Asked if they would be prepared to live next to a refugee camp, in 2013 a total of 67.4 per cent of those polled said no. In 2016, this had increased to 81.1 per cent.
Over the past three years, the number of those willing to donate clothes or money rose from 57.3 per cent to 76.3 per cent.
In recent days, government and state officials have continued to underline the illegality of what the Bulgarian-language media have been calling “citizens’ arrests” (even though Bulgarian law does not recognise the existence of such) and have been defending the country’s record.
On April 16, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov said that Bulgaria did not tolerate an inhumane attitude and illegal actions against refugees.
Mitov said that Bulgaria was showing considerable responsibility towards protecting the European Union’s external borders and, he said, this fact that was acknowledged by all European countries. The country strove to adhere to all international standards of border protection regarding registration of refugees, Mitov said.
The same day, Interior Minister Roumyana Buchvarova, speaking after an in situ inspection of border checkpoints, reiterated that the Interior Ministry had distributed information to residents of border areas, emphasising in clear terms that people should report sightings of illegal migrants and it was up to Border Police to find and detain those who had crossed the state border illegally.
On April 15, Prosecutor-General Sotir Tsatsarov again emphasised that “citizen’s arrests” did not exist as a legal concept and were illegal.
No one could take over the functions of the state, “tie up people and act like a cop,” Tsatsarov said, adding that anyone who did so would face prosecution.
Tsatsarov said that such groups tended to emerge when the state was seen as insufficiently strong and effective, and usually arose from ultra-nationalist and other sentiments in an attempt to take over the functions of the state, which would in turn lead to mob rule.
On April 14, head of state President Rossen Plevneliev said that groups of citizens taking the law into their own hands, especially when it came to limiting human rights, was completely unacceptable.
Plevneliev said that Bulgarian law set out clearly the powers of the national border guards.
He called on public authorities to apply the full extent of the law against undemocratic practices of citizens taking the law into their own hands.
“The state has the necessary resources and can cope with securing the Bulgarian border through the authorities empowered by law to do so,” the President said.