Rumours, complaints beset Bulgaria’s Ukrainian relocation operation

May 30, the second day of the Bulgarian government’s three-day operation to relocate Ukrainian refugees, was beset with problems including rumours discouraging the refugees from participating in the relocation.

There were also communication issues, with Ukrainians complaining that they did not know where they were being taken. Bulgarian authorities said that not informing them until the last minute was a security measure.

Some of the Ukrainians who had been relocated said that they would leave their new accommodation because they were dissatisfied with the conditions, Bulgarian media reports said.

On May 30, State Agency for Refugees head Mariana Tosheva said that “information” circulating among Ukrainian groups was discouraging them from accepting relocation to state facilities and hotels elsewhere.

In Varna, Anton Tonev, an MP for governing coalition partner We Continue the Change party, told reporters that “rumours from unknown sources” were circulating among Ukrainian refugees that they would be taken to a “concentration camp” in the mountains where there were no basic living conditions.

This was why many refugees in Varna had on May 29 and 30 refused to get on the buses that were to take them to the railway station for relocation, Tonev said.

Nova Televizia said on May 30 that the first 60 Ukrainian refugees who had left the Black Sea coast had reached the resort of Panichishte.

They had been provided with three meals a day, but some had complained that there were no nearby shops, pharmacies or hospitals, the report said.

One told Nova Televizia: “We arrived at night, we had no idea where we were, because until recently it was a secret where we were going.

“We are located high in the forest, we have no pharmacy or shops. We can’t even buy water, there are no buses, the room has no balcony, no hairdryer – nothing.”

Another complained that the room that they had been given smelt of cigarette smoke, was dirty and unmaintained.

The report said that the refugees were planning to leave the state accommodation facility in Panichishte and head back to Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast by bus and train.

Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) reported from the mountain resort of Bansko on May 30 that only one of the larger hotels, which is housing close to 200 refugees, had extended its contract, to participate in the post-May 31 scheme.

From February until the end of May, the Bulgarian state has been paying hotels 40 leva per person per day to accommodate Ukrainian refugees. From June 1, participating hotels will get 10 or 15 leva per person per day, depending whether food is provided.

BNR said that there were close to 2000 Ukrainian refugees in Bansko, and more were still arriving.

Some were heading back to Ukraine and others to countries “where their stay in better conditions is guaranteed,” BNR quoted Anna Bangeeva, a long-time Ukrainian expatriate in Bansko and head of the volunteer centre, as saying.

Bangeeva said that all the refugees in Bansko had been relocated, with the help of hoteliers and private guest houses.

“We have called everyone,” she said, describing the reduced fee to be paid to hotels housing Ukrainians as “not adequate”.

Maria Atanassova, manager of the large hotel that was continuing to house Ukrainian refugees, said that the only reason to continue participation in the programme was “human empathy” but they would only participate for one month, because the hotel could barely cover its losses.

On May 30, of 140 Ukrainians meant to depart on the morning train from Varna, 78 boarded the train.

They were reported to be headed ultimately to Ribaritsa, Panichishte and Veliko Turnovo.

However, BNR reported that the regional co-ordination headquarters and the police in Veliko Turnovo had received no information from the government that Ukrainians were travelling from Varna to Veliko Turnovo on May 30.

Sonya Budeva, head of the regional co-ordination headquarters in Veliko Turnovo, told BNR that there were no state facilities in Veliko Turnovo and the district where Ukrainians could be accommodated under the new state programme.

“We have not been informed that Ukrainians who left Varna this morning are traveling to Veliko Turnovo,” Budeva said.

In the Veliko Turnovo region, 535 Ukrainian citizens are accommodated in hotels and private accommodation. There was no information that they were being relocated, the report said.

Separate reports described the situation in front of one of the hotels in Sunny Beach as “chaos”.

Mothers with children and the elderly had to wait for hours on the buses, as the destination was not known until the last moment.

The refugees said they were worried whether they would have access to medical care in the interior of the country where they are being resettled.

In Plovdiv, the accommodation of Ukrainian refugees, including those who have left hotels at the Black Sea coast, is expected to begin at the former Plovdiv Lung Hospital this week, BNR said.

Two months ago, the municipal administration and a group of Ukrainians living in Plovdiv for years launched a large-scale operation to clean up a derelict building that closed seven years ago.

Hundreds of Plovdiv residents joined in with voluntary work and donations. The electrical and plumbing installations were repaired. The bathrooms were renovated. The painting of the rooms is currently being completed, everything necessary for the furniture has been purchased, BNR said.

The former lung hospital will function as a centre for temporary accommodation of Ukrainian refugees, according to Plovdiv deputy mayor Georgi Tityukov and Ukrainian Natalia Ellis, whose foundation has been actively supporting the settling of her compatriots in the city for nearly two months.

Every day they receive inquiries from people who need to move from hotels on the Black Sea coast.

“They are looking for a job, they are looking for shelter. We help them as much as we can. Now a big movement is starting and until mid-June it will be quite active,” Ellis said.

There are 53 rooms in the completely renovated three floors of the former hospital. The total capacity is 160 people.

“The idea is to accommodate them in a month or two or three so that we can integrate them,” Tityukov said.

About 2000 Ukrainian refugees, mostly mothers with children, have sought refuge in Plovdiv since February 2022 start of Russia’s current war on Ukraine.

Because the municipality has limited accommodation capacity, most are sheltered in housing provided voluntarily by residents of Plovdiv.

There are also those who have found accommodation and pay rent, and as the number of starting jobs is increasing, it is important to solve the problem of socialising children and enrolling them in kindergartens , Plovdiv deputy mayor Stefan Stoyanov said.

“We already have 35 children, but the process is slow, mainly due to vaccinations and more restrictive legislation that the state has decided to adopt. A large part of the Ukrainian community has already decided that it will stay here for a while and must integrate, and we are obliged to help,” Stoyanov said.

To compensate for the slow placement in the municipal kindergartens, a day centre for Ukrainian children has been operating in Plovdiv’s Trakia residential area since Friday, Ellis said.

Most often, Ukrainian citizens seek jobs in hotels and restaurants , as maids and assistant cooks, work that does not require them to speak Bulgarian. Hoteliers are also interested in English-speaking Ukrainians.

Bulgarian language courses, which started in Plovdiv almost two months ago with the assistance of the municipal and district administrations, were continuing, the report said.

(Screenshots: BNT)

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