The New Myth of Bulgaria's 'New Iron Curtain'
"The Iron Curtain is back. Topped with barbed wire, monitored by CCTV, patrolled by border guards..." This description refers to Bulgaria's border with Turkey. It shows (and creates) one image and fails to convey another.
The quotation was part of a Saturday article on Newsweek's website that was quite critical of the Bulgarian approach to a recent illegal immigration-related problem.
Asylum seekers (and not refugees) have been flowing into the country at a pace which puts Bulgaria under much strain. The poorest EU member state, for its part, is trying to curb this influx by building a fence along its border with Greece which indeed includes barbed wire and CCTV.
But it has nothing to do with the Iron Curtain that separated the capitalist world from the Soviet-bloc states in the Cold War. Back then, Bulgaria was on the Eastern side. Now, it is formally on the Western side (insofar as Europe mostly adheres to "Western" values), but has not improved too much in terms of economy and, to make things worse, has deteriorated in terms of living standards, demographics, and social cohesion.
Bulgaria is sitting in the middle of a major route to Europe. Thousands of asylum seekers give its border with Turkey a try every year, and most of them are fleeing conflicts in the Middle East (and some in North Africa). While signs of mistreatment against some of them are clear, not only judging by reports of human rights organizations but also by the nervousness of various governments in a row each time the issue is raised, for others we can never be sure.
A vast part of the mistreatment evidence comes from migrants who entered Western Europe via Bulgaria. Some of them tell human rights NGOs of wrongdoing on behalf of the Bulgarian authorities, imploring that other EU states be talked out of sending them back to Bulgaria, where they should stay under the Dublin II Regulation. But there is another vast part who are currently residing in Bulgaria and wish to leave even though the state is doing its best to look after them. Ask them and they will say: “I am not intending to stay here... We want to go to Western Europe.”
No single NGO has provided exact statistics about how many asylum seekers (no matter whether they have been granted status) wish to stay in Bulgaria. Probably because the group of such people is wearing thinner and thinner. Bulgaria has too little to offer asylum seekers, given that it has too little to offer its own population. Caught in the middle of a renewed economic crisis, an old social and demographic crisis and a permanent (even when not manifest) crisis of governance, the country could hardly adopt an integration policy for thousands of newcomers when it is often failing to meed the needs of its own population.
Critics of Bulgaria's response to the influx, which is indeed generally flawed, should explain what Bulgaria's alternatives are. Those crossing its external land border, which coincides with the southeastern border of the EU, are solely Sofia's responsibility: a disproportionate burden compared to Bulgaria's own capacity. Or maybe we should let and keep all migrants in to force Bulgarians out so that they set off west in search for better opportunities? And so that they "take away" the jobs of locals, as parties in some Western EU member states have long suggested?
For now – and this is also manifest in the incidents with migrants vessels in the Mediterranean – Europe does not wish to address the issue properly, at a bloc-wide level, leaving response up to Southern European member states. It seems human rights activists will have to ditch their illusions of Europe holding Bulgaria accountable for pushbacks or for its “anti-refugee fence”. Bulgaria has clutched at the straw of a temporary solution which it believes is better than no solution at all; but government short-sightedness is, as of now, compensated by no viable alternative.
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