Refugees will not have extra privileges at the expense of Bulgarians, caretaker Social Policy Minister Gulub Donev said on April 8, the day after the interim administration posted online a new version of an ordinance on the integration of foreigners granted asylum.
Donev was speaking just more than a week after the caretaker Cabinet controversially repealed an ordinance on the integration of refugees that had been approved in September 2016 by Boiko Borissov’s coalition government.
The scrapping of the 2016 was done under pressure from head of state President Roumen Radev, in a move that was sharply criticised by political opponents.
The Bulgarian Socialist Party, which in 2016 backed the presidential election campaign of Radev, made scrapping the ordinance part of its 2017 parliamentary election campaign. The BSP, which ran second in the elections and is not part of talks on forming a new government, had claimed that the provisions of the 2016 favoured refugees over Bulgarians.
Donev, speaking in a radio interview, said that the main task of the team that had come up with the new draft ordinance had been to define the criteria for the integration of refugees, ways to assess whether the process was positive and establishing whether there were difficulties in it, as well as assessing implications for national security and possible risks.
According to Donev, the ordinance that had been approved by the previous Borissov government had contained “precisely these weaknesses”.
He said that Bulgaria was not threatened by the suspension of European Union funds if there was no such document.
“The only funds that the country has received are from the fund for the asylum and integration of people relocating from other countries such as Greece and Turkey. Funds have been released for them, so that they can be integrated into society,” Donev said.
He said that all foreigners who are granted asylum or international protection have the same rights as Bulgarian citizens but will not benefit from privileges. Refugees will receive assistance in finding housing, but not money to pay the rent. They also will have the right to social benefits, no different from those for Bulgarians, he said.
Refugees will be able to use the services of labour bureaux but will not have an advantage in job-seeking.
One of the criteria for the degree of integration of refugees will be learning the Bulgarian language.
According to Donev, a mayor of a municipality where unemployment is high should not be party to a request to permanently settle foreigners.
He said that before settling many refugees in a region, there would be a check whether this would mean a threat to national security.
The 2016 ordinance provided for the voluntary participation of municipalities in a scheme to integrate refugees, including provisions for assistance with education, accommodation and services such as health care.
By March 2017, no municipality had applied to take part in the scheme.
In some Bulgarian small towns, the presence of Syrian refugees – no more than a small family, in each case – made national headlines because of resistance among some locals.
In the northern Bulgarian town of Belene, some nationalists mounted a campaign against the housing of a family of Syrian refugees by Roman Catholic priest Father Paolo Cortese. Facing threats, the refugees left the town, and the Vatican ordered the recall to Rome of Father Paolo, following threats against him and the church building where the refugees had been accommodated.
The new version of the ordinance posted online by the caretaker government on April 7 is open for comments from the public until April 21, two days after Bulgaria’s newly-elected National Assembly holds its first sitting.
Current estimates among those involved in talks on a coalition government between Borissov’s GERB party and the nationalist United Patriots coalition are that an elected government will be in office by the end of April or early May.
The United Patriots, in the 2016 presidential election and the March 2017 parliamentary election, advocated a tough line on migration, calling for refugees and migrants to be accommodated only in closed camps near Bulgaria’s borders. It remains to be seen what policy a coming Bulgarian government will carry out.
The April 7 proposed draft ordinance envisages the signing of an integration agreement between the mayor of a municipality and a foreigner who either has been granted asylum or international protection.
The agreement should cover aspects such as steps towards integration involving education, employment, training, accommodation, health care, welfare benefits and social services.
The draft ordinance proposes criteria for assessment of progress in integration, in various areas including access to education, employment, training, accommodation, health care, welfare benefits and social services. To carry out the assessments on these criteria, the institutions will collect data on the number of children enrolled in kindergarten or school, of foreigners enrolled in universities, and of foreigners who have started work.
Coordination and control of the integration agreement will be the responsibiliy of a deputy prime minister, assisted by the Cabinet office administration.
The proposed ordinance makes provision for the municipal mayor to terminate the agreement unilaterally, if the refugee commits a breach of the peace, demonstrates open public disrespect against law enforcement bodies, refuses to accept a job deemed appropriate in the employment and training programme and in the event of long-term absence from the municipality with which the integration agreement was signed.
The ordinance also makes provision for the refugees to lodge objections if the agreement is not being carried out, either partly or at all.
The agreement may be terminated by mutual consent, or if the foreigner is given a jail sentence, or if refugee or international protection status is withdrawn.