Stranded migrants feel unwelcome in hostile 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.