Bulgaria, Unready, Is Poor Host to Syrians
By Andrew Higgins
The New York Times
During a recent visit to a bleak refugee center hastily set up in an abandoned military camp at Harmanli in southern Bulgaria, Iliana Savova, with the Bulgaria Helsinki Committee, a human rights group, shook her head in dismay as she surveyed a muddy, garbage-strewn field dotted with tents, small cabins and clusters of freezing Syrians.
“I am ashamed, and that is a very weak word for what I feel,” said Ms. Savova, who directs the refugee migrant unit for the rights group. “We were a closed country for nearly 50 years and have no culture of receiving immigrants,” she added, referring to Bulgaria’s position as a Soviet satellite state from the end of World War II until 1989.
As the poorest member of the 28-nation European Union, Bulgaria has struggled to provide even rudimentary shelter to Syrian refugees, who began surging into the country from Turkey last summer after neighboring Greece, previously a popular entry point to Europe, built a fence along its border and beefed up controls.
The number of Syrian refugees reaching Bulgaria is still tiny — around 6,500 so far this year — compared with more than two million who have sought shelter in Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and Jordan. But even that number has severely strained the resources and also volatile politics of a country that received only 1,700 refugees in all of 2012. In just October of this year, the country recorded an influx of 3,626 refugees, nearly 60 percent of them from Syria.
The camp in Harmanli is just one of the places the refugees are housed.
Under scathing criticism for its handling of the refugees from foreign and local organizations, Bulgaria’s Socialist-led government fired the head of the State Agency for Refugees in October and replaced him with a former soldier, Nikolai Tchirpanliev. He has promised to improve conditions, but also says the refugees have complained too much, angering some Bulgarians.
In an interview, he said the flapping tents at Harmanli, where temperatures drop well below freezing at night, would soon all be gone. Emergency financing from the European Union, he said, will help Bulgaria buy the equipment it needs to process refugees so they can move on. The bloc’s rules require that refugees be registered and fingerprinted in the country where they first enter Europe.
Hikmat Kran, 31, a photographer from the war-ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo, is among the 1,450 refugees in the closed camp at Harmanli. He, his wife and their 1-year-old child recently moved into a small container that they share with another Syrian family, so they no longer have to sleep outside. Still, he said he had trouble sleeping because of the deepening winter cold and was often hungry because the only food came from irregular supplies donated by ordinary Bulgarians who want to help.
All the same, he said, he has no regrets about leaving Aleppo, which has been fought over for months by government and rebel forces. According to a report last week by the aid organization Doctors Without Borders, the city’s hospitals have been overwhelmed with casualties after a wave of government airstrikes.
“Here we at least have peace,” Mr. Kran said.