The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has been “actively advocating” with Bulgaria’s government for a more durable, long-term solution to meet the accommodation needs of Ukrainian refugees, especially with the winter season fast approaching.
This is according to the UNHCR Ukraine Refugee Situation Operational Update for Bulgaria, released to the media on August 24.
According to the report, the Bulgarian government’s hotel accommodation scheme, which currently hosts about 25 178 people – about 27 per cent of all Ukrainian refugees that have remained in Bulgaria – had been extended by the government to the end of September. It had been due to expire at the end of August.
The report said that the decision had been taken at a Cabinet meeting on July 27. This means that it was taken by the Petkov government, shortly before it left office.
A check by The Sofia Globe on August 24 on the dedicated portal set up by the former government showed that the information on it had not been updated since the caretaker government appointed by President Roumen Radev took office on August 2 – now 22 days ago.
The UNHCR report said that nearly 70 per cent of Ukrainians who remain in Bulgaria do not currently reside in the government subsidized hotels or state-owned accommodation centres.
“However, as their stay in Bulgaria continues, it is likely that many of them may also require winterisation support,” the UN refugee agency said.
Since the start of Russia’s February 2022 war on Ukraine, Bulgaria has received more than half a million refugees at its borders and has given temporary protection to about 124 000 Ukrainian refugees, 92 per cent of whom are women and children.
Between 85 000 and 86 000 Ukrainian refugees remain within Bulgaria as of August 5 2022, the UNHCR report said.
As part of its preparedness actions towards the start of the winter season, UNHCR has stepped up its operations and capacity in Bulgaria.
Specifically, UNHCR has prepositioned core relief items such as pillows, mattresses, kitchen sets, nappies, baby food/formula, in addition to women and children’s clothing.
These items will be distributed across all regions in Bulgaria within the months of September and October.
UNHCR is extending its Cash for Protection (CoP) programme to cover the winter period – with an initial target of 10 000 vulnerable persons.
UNHCR is coordinating the joint inter-agency winterisation response, within the framework of the Refugee Response Plan (RRP) recalibration.
The UN refugee agency has scaled up its protection and monitoring activities together with UNICEF and other partners by opening its sixth Blue Dot on July 14 in Varna.
Together, UNICEF and UNHCR have already opened such centres in the cities of Sofia and Bourgas as well as in Rousse and Durankulak at the Bulgarian-Romanian border, all of which host large numbers of Ukrainian refugees.
“Blue Dots provide a safe space, support, and referrals for health care, legal, education and psychosocial support,” the agency said.
“They bring together critical protection services and information for refugees fleeing the conflict in Ukraine, with a particular focus on children and those at greatest risk, including unaccompanied and separated children, persons with disabilities, cases of suspected trafficking, survivors of sexual or gender-based violence and refugees from LGBTIQ+ community,” the UNHCR report said.
Collectively, 11 710 people have received protection support through the Blue Dots initiative from its inception on May 9 to the end of July 2022.
UNHCR said that it had, together with the Bulgarian Red Cross, started rolling out financial, one-time cash assistance, or CoP, to the most vulnerable Ukrainian households on August 2 in Bourgas, where most refugees currently reside. UNHCR is working to increase the number of referrals in Varna and Sofia as well.
In addition, UNHCR plans to conduct mobile visits for households with mobility issues.
UNHCR anticipates that the CoP will help approximately 10 000 of the most vulnerable refugees currently living in Bulgaria.
The CoP will be extended until the end of the winter period.
The report said that over the past four months, there had been continued advocacy by UNHCR and efforts by the government of Bulgaria to assist refugees and to promote their access to livelihoods and economic inclusion.
This has mainly been through the government’s Solidarity Project.
As a result, over 5 600 Ukrainian refugees have been employed in Bulgaria by June 15, representing more than six per cent of refugees reported as currently remaining in Bulgaria and more than 15 per cent of the working population of those fleeing the war in Ukraine.
“This is a remarkable achievement, considering that on average, it takes five years for a quarter of refugees at working age to be employed in Europe,” the agency said.
In most cases, however, this employment is only temporary, as most are employed as low-skilled seasonal workers in hotels, albeit 65 per cent having completed higher education.
“Lack of childcare and difficulty to legalize diplomas remain key obstacles to decent employment,” the agency said.
The report said that more than 1300 enrolment applications for kindergarten and schools have been submitted to the Bulgarian national authorities by Ukrainian nationals; 82 children are already enrolled in kindergarten, while 439 are enrolled in schools.
UNHCR, together with the Ministry of Education and Science and UNICEF, has initiated a large-scale information campaign on school enrolment – ahead of the school year starting in September.
Currently, there is no comprehensive state plan for Bulgarian language classes.
UNHCR is providing 15 language courses to Ukrainian refugees through partners in several locations and will expand to 17 classes, the report said.
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