In a Bulgarian Town, Syrians Find Tension and Violence, but Little Hope

A decade after it was opened, Bulgaria’s biggest asylum centre, in Harmanli, is a crowded, sometimes violent, and – according to many accounts – squalid place, emblematic of the rot at the heart of Europe’s asylum policy.

Harmanli was built on tobacco, but it really grew under communism with the opening of factories that produced textiles, electronics, meat and wood products. Like other small towns across the Soviet bloc, Harmanli was pushed to become more than it was, and when communism fell, so too did Harmanli.

Communist-era sculptures remain, but this town in south-central Bulgaria between Plovdiv and the Turkish border is now a sorry shadow of its former self, crumbling at the edges and, for the past decade, a place of tension and division; there are people walking the streets of Harmanli, along the melancholy Maritza River, who never imagined they’d find themselves here.

In 2013, when the Bulgarian government was casting around for a location to build a big new refugee camp, it settled on Harmanli. Back then, the camp’s 1,500 beds were considered more than enough for the number of asylum seekers crossing the border from Turkey.

Fast-forward a decade and conditions in the camp are intolerable, say those inside.

“There’s no pillow, only one sheet, and the beds are dirty, just like the bathrooms,” said a 27-year-old English literature graduate who had fled the civil war raging in Syria since 2011. “They give us two meals a day but most of us don’t eat it because the food is so bad.”

Rights organisations have also cited the prevalence of soiled mattresses and bedbugs, not just in Harmanli but in other camps and reception centres for migrants and refugees who have fled war, repression or poverty in parts of the Middle East, Asia and Africa in the hope of starting again in Western Europe. As of December last year, in Harmanli almost everyone in the camp came from Syria, where more than half a million people have died in the war.

The most serious concern, wrote Iliana Savova of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee in the country’s yearly Asylum Information Database published in April 2023, is the “safety and security of asylum seekers accommodated in the reception centres”, citing the presence of “smugglers, drug dealers and sex workers” who access the camp “without any interference from private security staff”.

Reports of violence between asylum seekers, both inside and outside the camp, have also contributed to tensions with local Harmanli residents who have been protesting against the camp ever since it opened its doors.

But while authorities have responded by further restricting the freedom of movement of those housed within the camp, activists say such incidents should hardly come as a surprise given the conditions people are being subjected to for weeks, sometimes months on end.

“This kind of violence is ‘normal’, in a way,” said an activist with the Italian aid organisation Collettivo Rotte Balcaniche Alto Vicentino, which spent the summer of 2023 in Harmanli.

“There are 1400 people in a camp and they’re forced to stay together in bad conditions.”

The activist spoke on condition of anonymity. Others said calls to 112, the national emergency line, often went unanswered and ambulances sometimes never turn up when migrants and refugees are wounded crossing the wooded border. Skin conditions are rife inside the camp, they said.

But for policymakers, Harmanli is merely a regrettable side story to the bigger picture of Bulgaria’s imminent, albeit partial, accession to Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone; to get there, it had to prove it can secure its borders and rid them of corruption to the satisfaction of Austria and the Netherlands, which had held up the accession of both Bulgaria and Romania due to concerns over immigration.

Atanas Rusev, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, said Bulgaria was a “kind of victim of this huge policy rift on the European level” between conservative states and more those with more progressive attitudes towards immigration.

“On the one hand it requires that you provide efficient and adequate border controls; on the other, you’re supposed to let in everyone who claims asylum,” he said. In between lurk the smugglers, extorting and recruiting migrants and refugees.

Fear of the unknown

Hamid Khoshsiar, a physics graduate and former software salesman from Iran, spent nine months in Harmanli camp before deciding to settle in the town in 2019.

He said “so much” had changed over the past year.

“After the elections in Turkey last May, the violence on the Turkish-Bulgarian border has increased,” Khoshsiar told BIRN, explaining that it varies from period to period depending on the strength of Turkish police deployments. “So many are losing their lives on the way.”

To date, Khoshsiar is the only Iranian to receive refugee protection status in Bulgaria, a long and convoluted process that made headlines in January when it was reported that an Iranian musician, living in Sofia for the past 13 years, faced deportation having repeatedly been refused the same status.

Khoshsiar, who is part of a local humanitarian organisation called Mission Wings and manages a small community centre in Harmanli, said fear is at the heart of the protests against the camp.

“What people don’t know, they fear – this is the main reason why they are concerned about the situation with the camp,” he told BIRN.

“Some of the nationalist-minded might say something but the citizens are treating me normally. But if I have to take myself out of the picture and talk more generally, somehow locals and refugees share the space, albeit divided – they pass through the same streets and parks but rarely communicate. Conflicts mainly happen between refugees and that is something that is a new factor in 2023. Violence happens both inside and outside the camp.”

In late 2022, Mission Wings came under investigation by the State Agency for Refugees on suspicion of involvement in trafficking; Khoshsiar was questioned and his community centre searched, but nothing ever came of it and Mission Wings was commended by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee for its work providing aid to migrants and refugees.

In Harmanli, however, a string of violent incidents involving asylum seekers has further unsettled local residents and triggered fresh protests: in May last year, an altercation between three Syrians ended in a stabbing, and in July a person was stabbed to death inside the camp.

BIRN followed a protest in late September, attended by several hundred people. Some participants called for the camp’s closure, others for tighter restrictions on those housed there. A similar protest occurred in late October.

“If the centre held up to 500 people it would be much more manageable for the population to accept [its existence],” the head of the State Agency for Refugees, Mariana Tosheva, told BIRN in an interview following the September protest.

In December, the agency cut the hours during which refugees can enter and exit the camp by one hour; it now works from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the winter and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the summer. At that point, the camp was working at 86 per cent capacity, or 1,436 residents. Almost all of them were Syrian.

By February, Interior Minister Kalin Stoyanov put the figure at 1,146. The refugee agency has conceded that the Ovcha Kupel and Vrazhdebna camps in the capital, Sofia, are overcrowded.

“The condition of the centres is of great challenge and concern,” a representative of the agency, Irina Daneva, told BIRN in written answers. “We’re looking into providing funds for further maintenance and initiating major repairs of the territorial units where the seekers are accommodated.”

There will be tighter checks for possible weapons at the entrance to the Harmanli centre, where security has already been beefed up. But Daneva said money was also tight, telling BIRN: “The agency has not been allowed funding through other funds and financial mechanisms, and at this stage we do not have an additional source of funding outside the state budget.”

‘The most vulnerable usually become the target’

In early November last year, a little over a month after BIRN interview Khoshsiar, he was attacked by a drunk who was later arrested.

Speaking again to BIRN, Khoshsiar blamed the attack on tensions whipped up by a local politician – whom he did not name – using the issue of refugees to consolidate his grip on power.

“If local authorities don’t control the situation now, there will be more violence in future and refugees will experience even more attacks.”

A climate of impunity, he said, is fuelling police violence on the border as well as violence between refugees.

“And after all, predators are searching for prey and the most vulnerable usually become the target.”

These include minors and young people, Khoshsiar warned.

In August 2022, an 18-year Syrian was sentenced to a year and 10 months behind bars after the bus he was driving with 47 other Syrians on board collided with a police car in the coastal city of Burgas, killing two officers. Two other Syrians were also convicted.

Last year, on October 10, a Syrian, reported to be aged between 17 and 19, was shot dead in broad daylight in Sofia’s Krasna Polyana. Police said his death was likely connected to trafficking.

According to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, irregular border crossings into Bulgaria rose from 10,799 in 2021 to just over 16,700 in 2022; the interior ministry says that between January and November 2023 Bulgarian border police ‘prevented’ 170,000 irregular crossings, a 24 per cent rise on the same period of 2022.

Pushbacks are frequently violent, and crossings fraught with risk.

In a joint investigation published on December 7, RFI, Lighthouse Reports, The I Newspaper, Solomon, Der Spiegel and ARD reported that 93 migrants and refugees had been found dead on Bulgarian territory in the previous two years.

Bulgaria has been under pressure to prove it can secure its borders in order to win Austrian and Dutch acquiescence to its membership of the Schengen area. Partial membership was granted last year, with controls to be lifted at the air and sea borders of Bulgaria and Romania as of end-March. Accession does not apply to their land borders, yet.

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