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Turkey-Bulgaria Border, From Iron Curtain To Refugee Gateway

People escaping the Communist bloc used to try to cross from Bulgaria into Turkey. Now, immigrants, including many refugees from the war in Syria, cross the other way.

A Syrian refugee detained at a border police station in Bulgaria
A Syrian refugee detained at a border police station in Bulgaria
Elise Vincent

HARMANLI – Major Zhelyn Zhelev is small stocky man with a suspicious glare. At 48, he may have dreamed of a better career path than the one that landed him as director of this detention center in southern Bulgaria, 30 kilometers away from the Turkish border.

He barely hides his dissatisfaction with what he sees. For the past two months, his men have spent their days blowing their whistles and hurling insults at dozens of Syrian asylum seekers, as they squeeze them into the Harmanli center's prefabricated homes and tents lined up along a former barracks’ wasteland.

Bulgaria, the European Union’s poorest member-state, is now being confronted for the first time with the consequences of the global people-smuggling networks. It is widely seen as the “least expensive gateway to Europe,” with a trip across the border between Turkey and Bulgaria going for an average of 500 euros. By comparison, a crossing over to neighboring Greece, more difficult to access, requires several thousand euros.

In an effort to manage the flow of migrants, Bulgarian authorities announced mid-October a plan to build a 3-meter high wall covering 30 kilometers of the 259-km long border they share with Turkey. The wall is set to be completed in March 2014.

The Bulgarian government has tried to downplay the importance of the wall, noting that it would not cover the entire border and was meant to “protect” the migrants from the dangerous forest that covers the area.

History's symbols

But the symbolsm is important: 25 years earlier, the “Iron Curtain” separating Western Europe from the Communist bloc followed the same tracks, and prevented Bulgarians from fleeing the country. Today, migratory flows have been reversed, and a fence is being built to stop migrants from entering Bulgaria.

Major Zhelev proudly repeats that, in the past, he took part in several Bulgarian army operations in Afghanistan. The stench of the six showers and toilets that the 1,100 detainees share has by now ceased to disgust him. “As you can see, it's modern, these are European standards,” he says ironically. “But is it sad?,” he asks, pausing before answering himself. “Yes, especially for us Bulgarians…”

At the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, this predicament is no mystery. “This scenario was predictable,” says one official. “The Bulgarian authorities had been alerted.”

Experts knew that the construction of a similar wall at the Greece-Turkey border, in 2012, would divert a part of the flow of migrants. This new situation is being compounded by the refugees that come from an increasing number of conflicts around the world: Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and since 2011, Syria.

The first stages of this migratory shift could already be seen in August 2012. In one month, the number of Syrian refugees had doubled, going from 24 to 48. But this summer, came the real boom. On November 1, Bulgaria was overwhelmed, with more than 7,300 people applying for asylum. More than half were Syrian.

Compared to the 2 million Syrians who landed in the Jordanian and Lebanese camps, it is a drop in the ocean. But the figure is seven times higher than what Bulgaria had ever seen, and no one was prepared, and the 1,200 places across the country’s existing detention centers were quickly crammed full. Bulgarian authorities did set up — though hastily — four makeshift camps, including the one in Harmanli. But the living conditions here are extremely poor, far from any international conventions on refugee centers.

Refugee center in Harmanli, Bulgaria — Photo: Jodi Hilton/NurPhoto/ZUMA

Bulgarian authorities now claim they are not able to feed the new arrivals. The Red Cross is trying to provide help, but, in Hermanli, the families only get one bottle of water, one loaf of bread and three cans of food per person every five days. Barely enough for one to two meals.

Skinny jeans

The wealthiest Syrians seem most shocked. “We’re living like animals here!” exclaims Fadi, who prefers a pseudonym. At 24, he arrived here with his wife and brother. Dressed in skinny jeans, a designer jacket and an iPhone 5 in hand, he used to manage a travel agency in Syria. After spending two months in Turkey, they were arrested at the Bulgarian border before being escorted to Harmanli.

An hour after their arrival, they were still looking for a space to sleep. “If I had the choice, I’d go back to Syria”, Fadi says.

But Harmanli is a closed camp where all identity document are taken by authorities. Refugees can only exit the camp once they manage to complete an asylum application, which can take two months, as there are only 20 instructors in the Bulgarian administration. As a result, shady lawyers are regularly walking around the camp’s dusty alleys offering to speed up the procedure for $100, though most migrants have no money.

There are also serious healthcare shortages. The Red Cross has no drugs to offer. The UNHCR reported the case of a 4-year-old boy with leukemia not receiving any treatment. Le Monde saw a young woman from Aleppo who was seven months pregnant and, unless there are major complications, will not be able to give birth at the hospital.

Bed bugs

Once their application is registered, the asylum seekers’ fate may improve. The luckiest get to access solid bedrooms in open centers, where they can come and go until they get an answer. They are granted 33 euros per month as financial support, but the procedure can take months.

In Harmanli, in the open centers, children wander about everywhere with no schools or Bulgarian language lessons or other efforts at potential integration made available.

A show of force between Bulgarian authorities and the European Union has in fact emerged over the last three months. When Bulgaria exhibits their inadequate detention centers to the media, the EU retorts that they have already granted them 15 million euros for financial help since the beginning of the year and that the support facilities could probably be better for this price. Brussels has hinted that corruption is a major problem in Bulgaria.

The UN knows it is an important for the EU if it does not want more and more refugees to continue westward towards Germany or France. In addition to the poor living conditions in the detention centers, the Bulgarians only provide the Syrians with “humanitarian protection,” which does not allow family reunification or free movement.

In the Harmanli camp, there is a tough winter ahead. In the evening, refugees cook in the damp grass on an open fire of logs and old crates. A lice outbreak has recently reached the tents, and so many choose to sleep on the floor instead of mattress.

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