Are Bulgarian Politicians Mainstreaming Anti-Migrant Sentiment?
In October and November, protests were held in the village of Boyanovo and the nearby town of Yambol, with locals venting their anger over the construction of a migrant camp for three thousand people.
In reality, the accommodation facility was supposed to fit in just a few hundred people on a temporary basis.
Rumours, however, remained rife among the local population, no matter how much authorities sought to communicate the truth - something they should have done before rumours were spread, knowing how sensitive the "migrant issue" is anywhere out of the big cities.
First because of the ageing or low-education population among which it is easy to spread falsehoods and whose opinions can easily be swayed in one or another direction. Secondly, inhabitants of small cities and towns, let alone rural border areas, have more legitimate reasons to mistrust anything coming out of their small communities, and this mistrust includes institutions and.
The riot in the Harmanli migrant reception center last week, when hundreds - out of the 3000 inhabitants - took part in unrest may have made headlines in Bulgaria and abroad, but was no more than a sign of how deep-rooted the abusive, and somewhat frivolous, state attitude toward migrants can be in the country.
Authorities decided to lock up three thousand migrants
who inhabited the camp for the very same reason that had fuelled the Boyanovo protests: rumours. The word had gone about among locals in Harmanli that some of the migrants had dangerous diseases; panic reigned in as migrants would normally go out in the town to get food, have a beer or just take a walk.
Even though state institutions fended off the claims, they took the step to dispel concerns until medical examinations could take place. Some media outlets covering the problems of migrants then reported the center's residents had not been informed about the reasons and had suddenly felt imprisoned.
The website Marginalia.bg, which focuses on minorities issues, reported of yet another rumour that had circulated within the confines of the center after it had been closed to movement - apparently, some migrants were told that 8000 Afghans (the biggest group of arrivals at the moment) would be deported from Bulgaria soon.
As many as 350 migrants were left injured while some 400 were arrested in the clashes that erupted. Human rights activists blamed police for excessive force applied while quelling the riot. The "anti-migrant" segment of the population, but also nationalist parties, commended authorities for the timely response and congratulated the law enforcement bodies for doing their job.
A figure that - one again- stood out was that of outgoing Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who postponed a visit to Hungary to rush to the scene and intervene, assigning tasks to all institutions and ensuring detentions and deportations of the "dangerous" migrants.
What happened had not been difficult to foresee at all. Locking up 3000 people with poor quality food and in bad hygienic conditions could not have yielded other results. Indeed, a certain number of the migrants were found to be sick with scabies and other skin diseases after examinations. The lingering question is: why weren't these examinations conducted earlier? Given the recent account of a local photographer who made it into Harmanli (despite restrictions for journalists) and saw appalling hygienic conditions, why weren't the root causes for scabies removed from the center in the first place?
All of this would have been far less concerning had it not been part of an unofficial election campaign.
For Borisov, the constant reference to a “migrant threat”, be it justified or not,
was a natural “evolution” of his mantra of stability:
his government considered itself a crucial player to preserve political, economic, financial and all other kids of stability, and this has been the case ever since he took over as Prime Minister for the second time since 2014. It is easy for a political establishment to grasp at a issue such as the inflow of migrants when the latter is self-evident, when one has to seize the topic away from nationalist parties already spreading fear among the population, or when one is a neighbour of Turkey. Ankara's statements, albeit largely produced for domestic consumption, can justify any wrongdoing across the Turkish border, including the notorious expulsion in August and subsequent cases.
Migrants and refugees (the latter term, strangely enough, increasingly used by the media in a way that gives it a certain negative connotation) were also the core issue of the presidential election campaign alongside ties with Russia,
with all candidates competing over who would send out more apocalyptic messages
about Bulgaria's “bleak” future in case of an imaginary swarm of arrivals. They also helped a nationalist candidate, Krasimir Karakachanov, get 15% of the vote, a huge leap compared to his previous run. Now that the government has stepped down, both the outgoing administration and the opposition parties are again using the newcomers as a bargaining chip in the dialogue with future voters (even though an early election won't come before March), linking stability to how the inflow is being handled.
The problem is not that they have embarked on a race for the hearts and minds of the electorate, but that they risk instilling hatred and normalizing the culture of anti-migrant violence. There are already local referendum petitions seeking a ban on accepting migrants in some municipalities.
Back in April, it was institutional weakness and approval among part of locals that made authorities tolerate vigilante migrant hunters along the border. Six months earlier, it may have been self-defense and a ricochet that resulted in the death of an Afghan migrant at the Bulgarian-Turkish border.
Now, a new election cycle has loomed, and conspiracy theory lovers immediately started to ask: Why was it now, amidst the deep political crisis, and not earlier, that the riot happened? But nothing saddens a conspiracy skeptic more than hearing mainstream, moderate political scientist repeat, on air, that they “hope the riot was not intentionally caused”; as if they were seeking to persuade themselves and not the public.
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