LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Bulgaria should immediately halt plans to build a $6.7 million fence along its border with Turkey, a Bulgarian human rights lawyer said, voicing shame over her country’s treatment of thousands of Syrians seeking asylum.
Refugee expert Iliana Savova said a dramatic fall in the number of Syrians crossing into Bulgaria, following the dispatch of 1,500 additional police to the border, suggested guards were pushing asylum seekers back into Turkey in violation of international refugee law.
“I feel ashamed… And shame is even a very weak word to describe how I felt in the beginning when I saw the way these people were treated and dumped in abandoned buildings with nothing - no heating, no electricity, no running water, no medical help,” said Savova, director of the refugee unit for the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the country’s biggest rights watchdog.
“These were people fleeing from war. The majority were women and small children. You had pregnant women, you had babies. And nothing was provided for them,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the Bulgarian capital Sofia.
Approximately 10,000 asylum seekers arrived in Bulgaria last year, two-thirds of them Syrians. The European Union’s poorest county, which normally sees just 1,000 asylum seekers a year, was taken by surprise.
The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) is so concerned at the situation that it has told other EU countries not to send asylum seekers back to Bulgaria if they leave, citing the lack of access to basic needs, registration delays and risk of arbitrary detention. It will review the situation in April.
More than 2.5 million Syrians have fled civil war at home. Most have sought sanctuary in neighbouring countries including Turkey, but growing numbers are trying to reach Europe.
Around 3,600 people arrived in Bulgaria last October, but numbers fell dramatically after the country beefed up border security in November. Last month, just 90 people entered the country. The government has denied sending asylum seekers back to Turkey, but refugee experts are skeptical.
“I can’t state that pushbacks happen. But if we analyse the figures then you can do the maths and draw your own conclusions,” Savova said. “I think the figures speak for themselves.”
The influx has prompted Bulgaria to order construction of a 3-metre-high wire fence in the Elhova border region with Turkey, following the example of Greece which built a similar barrier in 2012.
U.N. refugee chief Antonio Guterres has said he deplores the erection of fences and repeatedly called on EU countries to keep their borders open for Syrian refugees.
“There is something fundamentally wrong in a world where even people fleeing a conflict as horrific as this one are being pushed back from land borders,” he told the U.N. General Assembly recently.
Under EU law, if a person arriving in an EU country tells border guards they are claiming asylum, they should be allowed to enter and given immediate access to the asylum procedure.
Savova said the planned fence was “absolutely senseless”, adding: “We’ve very quickly found the money to build a fence, but we couldn’t find the money to accommodate people when they arrived last year.”
The lawyer said the plight of Syrians in Bulgaria had been compounded by a xenophobic campaign driven by the government and media.
“Instead of trying to meet these people’s basic needs, they opted to create a hostile image of asylum seekers and refugees in order to excuse the poor treatment,” she added. “The media and government demonised them.”
Ultranationalist parties have also whipped up hatred, denouncing Syrian asylum-seekers as “terrorists” and “criminals”.
In November, a Syrian teenager was stabbed near a reception centre in Sofia. Another person was beaten up after being mistaken for a Syrian.
Concerns over xenophobia are shared by the UNHCR, which has urged the media to report responsibly. The agency said a survey in December showed nearly half of Bulgarians strongly opposed refugees living in Bulgaria.
But Savova said many ordinary Bulgarians had gone out of their way to support Syrians, giving them food and other basics the government had failed to provide.
“There are good examples, not only bad,” she adds. “In Kovachevtsi, close to Sofia, the mayor and local community really helped people move into abandoned houses and integrate.”
Savova said Bulgaria had been closed for so long during the communist era that it was not used to immigration.
“This is a very new phenomenon for Bulgaria,” she added. “During communism we were a closed country so still we have areas where the local population have not even come across a foreigner. And of course if you are not familiar with something you can be easily scared.
“But whenever people do meet asylum seekers they see they are normal people like everyone else. They have the same hopes and dreams. They share the same problems and anxieties.”
The UNHCR said the Bulgarian authorities have begun to improve conditions in the seven reception centres and resolve registration delays.