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Refugees at Europe’s Gate

As its shelters overflow with Syrians, Bulgaria asks for help from an EU that is in no mood to give.

by Boyko Vassilev 3 October 2013

I saw them a year ago on the Syrian-Turkish border, a desperate crowd of hunted people.


The refugees were coming from the embattled town of Azaz, escorted by the Free Syrian Army. Families carried mainly two things: potatoes and ventilators. The latter was not a curiosity: I had been in the Kilis refugee camp in Turkey and seen the thermometer reach 57 degrees Celsius (135 degrees Fahrenheit) in the July heat.


I can’t forget the teenager hoisting a sack of potatoes bigger than himself, stopping every minute as he doggedly proceeded toward the barbed-wired Turkish border. I saw many refugees during my journalistic assignments in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, but the Sisyphean effort of this boy was particularly heartbreaking.


I wonder what he was expecting. If he had seen what I did, he would be rather discouraged: in July 2012 Turkish refugee camps were already overflowing; water, sanitation, and living space were scarce. The poor fellow maybe thought the worst was behind him: the shooting helicopters over Azaz, the explosions, the terror, the war. But a life full of uncertainties awaited.


A year later the Syrian war is still vicious – and the refugees are on the border of my country, Bulgaria. Four thousand eight hundred are already in, and the 5,000 mark will be reached as you read this. According to experts, that is all Bulgaria can handle.


Like elsewhere, Bulgarian society is divided on the issue. Spontaneously organized via Facebook, citizens donated clothes and food in astonishing quantities. Bulgarian mothers wanted to adopt a Syrian kid; Bulgarian families wanted to host a whole family. Lessons in Bulgarian were organized. The church was active. The Red Cross tapped its reserve funds. Especially helpful was the Syrian community in Bulgaria, full of established and successful personalities. One of them, restaurateur Abu Camal, known for his tasty doner kebabs in downtown Sofia and for his sympathy with the Syrian opposition, gave some of the refugees shelter and work.


Of course, there were also people who bowed to fear. They claimed Turkey was deliberately escorting refugees for 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) to Bulgaria in order to relieve its own situation. Their concern was the example of neighboring Greece, which strengthened its Turkish border on the Maritsa (Evros) river with fences but failed to stop the illegal refugee wave in the last two years; ultimately this wave filled cities with homeless immigrants and helped spur xenophobia (the extremist Golden Dawn being the most shocking by-product). Bulgarian populists warn that Bulgaria’s cities will follow Greece’s, the social system will crumble, and the state will collapse. They add (rightly) that immigrants from other countries (such as Mali and Algeria) pretend to be Syrians in an effort to claim asylum in Bulgaria.


Some of the fears are groundless. For example, translators on the border can easily tell the difference between Syrians and non-Syrians.


And the more welcoming among us make another good point: if Bulgarians protest against the anti-immigrant statements of Western European politicians like Brit Nigel Farage or Dutch Geert Wilders, shouldn’t we be more generous ourselves? Well, life is different if you receive immigrants, or you are the immigrant yourself. Sometimes both characters live in the same person. You can play decent Dr. Jekyll abroad – and nasty Mr. Hyde at home.


Yet the Bulgarian government has immense problems with this crisis. The refugee camps are poor, old, and in disrepair; some refugees have revolted already. A woman died because an ambulance came late (her family had to call it via a friend in Germany, who called another friend in Sofia, because camp authorities had advised calling a taxi). Some of the camps are situated in a town center, which raises criminality and provokes local unrest. Translators are scarce. And, of course, everything comes down to money or the lack thereof. It’s hard to come by even in the best of times in this poorest of the European Union countries, let alone for a crisis. And this is a major one, since Syria is closer to Bulgaria than Brussels.


So it’s logical for Bulgaria to call Europe for help, as it did late last month. In Brussels, the country has an advocate – the European commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid, and crisis response is Bulgarian Kristalina Georgieva. The answer is pending, but Europe is in no mood for solidarity right now.


Despite similar pleas (for example from Malta), the EU is not very flexible on the matter. “Bulgaria may receive assistance for integration of immigrants,” said Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn in Sofia. An impolite translation: “You will be encouraged to keep the wave at bay here, in Bulgaria, and not let it flow farther north and west.”


Look at the capacity much richer countries are declaring. Germany, the biggest European economy, stated it can accommodate 5,000 Syrian refugees, a number the weakest, Bulgaria, has already taken in. Facing federal elections in May, Belgian politicians quarreled over the number 4,000: it turned out to be a promise too generous. It does not seem that impressive, though, considering that 5,000 (a magic number in this column) are leaving Syria every day. The discussion about numbers outshines the values discussion. Not even the tragic fate of Syrian Christians, pressed between both sides in the conflict and fleeing en masse the land of John Chrysostom, strikes a chord in Europe.


To find solidarity is obviously a Sisyphean task in Europe these days. But step by step, word by word, Brussels should be reminded what binds the union together. Otherwise, every crisis will shake it.

Boyko Vassilev
 is a moderator and producer of the weekly 
Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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