First Published: 2017-08-23

Stranded migrants feel unwelcome in hostile Bulgaria
Bulgarian state help to integrate newcomers is virtually absent in country whose economy badly needs foreign workers.
Middle East Online

Hardship in Bulgaria

SOFIA - Syrian refugee Fahim Jaber hoped for a better life in Europe. But like hundreds of others, he is stuck in Bulgaria, the EU's poorest country -- safe, but unwelcome and with few prospects.

The average salary here is 510 euros ($602), a third of the European Union average and a fraction of that of rich countries. State help to integrate the newcomers is virtually absent.

Arriving from what remained of Aleppo in 2016, Jaber and his family found themselves in Elin Pelin outside Sofia facing a hostile demonstration by locals in the town's main square.

"They shouted 'We resisted the Ottomans and we will not accept you,' 'We will Christianise you'," recounted the 57-year-old.

The local mayor, a member of one of the ultra-nationalist, openly xenophobic parties within Bulgaria's governing coalition, refused to give the family a residence permit.

"We came back to the house, locked the door and didn't dare to go out for two months," Fahim's wife Fatima Batayi said, recalling how frightened she had been.

Luckily their son Mehmed -- who has a job in Bulgaria -- took care of them, buying food and other necessities while a long-established Syrian immigrant helped them get registered.

Since 2013, almost 60,000 migrants have applied for asylum in Bulgaria, having taken the land route out of Syria into Turkey and then over the border into Bulgaria.

Most have then continued their journey westwards to Germany, France or Sweden, but a few hundred remain in Bulgaria -- largely because they have no choice.

While the Jaber family's experience was extreme, generally the welcome has been far from warm.

This is due to what analyst Yavor Siderov calls an "anti-refugee consensus" in Bulgarian society, incited largely through the media and shared across the political spectrum.

"It creates fears and makes people feel scared about a shift in the population given the demographic collapse in this country," Siderov said.

Like other Eastern European countries, Bulgaria has seen an exodus of workers seeking opportunities in wealthier parts of the EU.

But the population has shrunk at a speed that has alarmed Bulgarians: almost two million citizens have emigrated in the past 23 years, leaving around 7.1 million -- a rate of attrition that is one of the fastest in Europe.

- No help -

Bulgaria is shooting itself in the foot with its approach to migrants, Siderov argues, because its economy badly needs foreign workers.

"Since Germans and Swiss aren't coming here, we have to look to other countries," he said.

But a report by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in April bemoaned the absence of "targeted integration support" from the government for the new arrivals.

"Integration services such as Bulgarian language classes, housing support, professional education classes or help with child care and enrolment of children in school (...) are not provided," it said.

"The government here, they don't do anything for refugees," said Syrian Bilal Hasan, 44, who had all his money stolen by people smugglers and now has humanitarian protection status in Bulgaria.

"If you want to do anything here -- to search for a job, find a house, anything -- you have to do it on your own. I was so lucky because I have made some friends and they help me a lot now," he added.

The story is similar for fellow Syrian Kaled Deyab, 36, and his wife and two children, some of the 1,000 migrants due to arrive in Bulgaria from Greece under an EU relocation scheme.

"We left Damascus in 2015 and arrived in Greece in February 2016. It's been two years that we've been on the road already and that the children haven't been to school," he said.

Once they get refugee status, the Deyabs will have two weeks to leave the migrant centre in Sofia that is currently their home. They have no idea where to go.

 

Bloodbath in Syria's eastern Ghouta

Two hardline Syria rebels announce merger

IS kills 25 Iraqi militiamen near Kirkuk

Sudan frees dozens of activists detained after protests

Saudi Arabia to host first Arab Fashion Week

Abbas calls for peace conference in rare UN speech

Egyptian court adds leading government critic on terror list

Yemen government offensive threatens heritage site

Turkey considering chemical castration for child abusers

45 civilians killed in air strikes on rebel enclave

Cairo sheds Ottoman-era street names amid Egypt-Turkey crisis

New woes for Israeli PM in fresh graft cases

Maghreb countries wary about jihadists relocating from Iraq, Syria

Erdogan says Turkey will besiege Afrin "swiftly"

Turkey releases leading pro-Kurdish politician

5 Iranian police killed in Sufi protests

Iran finds wreckage of crashed plane on top of mountain

Israel’s gas contract with Egypt: deal or no deal?

Somalia appoints new police, intelligence chiefs

Iran plane crash rescue search halted for second night

France reaffirms commitment to Iran nuclear deal

Turkey warns Syria against protecting Kurds

Abbas warms up to Moscow amid cold US-Palestinian ties

Israel strikes 'historic' gas contract with Egypt

Are Iranian satellite channels aiding regime change?

Israel pounds Gaza with air strikes after rocket attack

Iraq orders deportation of French jihadist

Pro-Assad militias to enter Syria's Afrin

Three Egyptian soldiers killed in Sinai

Israeli, US officials meet over gas row with Lebanon

Iran's supreme leader says progress needed on justice

Syria Kurds claim striking positions in Turkey

Netanyahu warns Iran, brandishes piece of metal

66 feared dead as plane crashes in Iranian mountains

Saudi women to open businesses without male permission

Netanyahu slams 'outrageous' Holocaust remark by Polish PM

Israeli air strikes kill 2 in Gaza

Six suffer breathing difficulties after Turkish shelling in Afrin

Russian mercenaries - a discrete weapon in Syria

Iran protests ban on wrestler who threw bout to avoid Israel

Fears of expanding Syrian war could trigger peace deal

Battle to free Mosul of IS 'intellectual terrorism'

Turkey frees Garman-Turk journalist after one year without charge

Turkey hands life sentences to 3 journalists for Gulen links

Turkey, US agree to ‘work together’ in Syria