Syrian refugees leave Bulgaria for German limbo | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 28.11.2014
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Syrian refugees leave Bulgaria for German limbo

Many Syrians use Bulgaria as a stepping stone to the heart of Europe, although EU rules say refugees are meant to stay put. Krasimir Yankov reports on a Syrian refugee making his way from Sofia to Eisenhüttenstadt.

The last words of the call to prayer slowly blended with the street noise as the taxi came to a halt on a warm June evening. Ali Najaf looked around and stepped onto the cobbled street. His deep brown eyes scanned the stalls and shops of the Ladies' Market, a lively part of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia.

The area is popular with Middle Eastern migrants and it did not take long for Ali to find someone who spoke his native languages, Kurdish and Arabic.

"Is this where they take refugees to Germany?" Ali asked in a low voice of two men idling on the steps of a second-hand clothes shop. After a nod towards the door, Ali wrestled his bags inside. All his family's belongings had been packed into two backpacks, a small suitcase and a grocery bag. Ali, his mother, brother and two sisters were on the move again.

Ali and his family, whose names have been changed in this story at their request, are among thousands of Syrians fleeing their country's civil war who sought refuge in Bulgaria last year and then travelled across Europe in search of a better life. The story of their journey exposes both the hardships they face and the gaps between European Union asylum policy and reality.

To shed light on their experiences, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network has followed the progress of Ali's family and other refugees since late last year, visiting them in Bulgaria and Germany and receiving updates by phone and social media. BIRN has also interviewed officials dealing with refugees in both countries about the challenges they face.

Ali is a skinny, 25-year-old Kurdish student with raven-black hair. His father died when he was a young boy in Rojava, the name Kurds use for their homeland in Syria. His command of English has made him the de-facto head of the family since they became refugees, and he seeks to project an air of confidence and control.

Too dangerous to stay

Back in Syria, Ali studied petroleum engineering in the city of Homs. In the summer of 2013, he was returning to his hometown, after sitting end-of-term exams, when masked militants stopped his bus.

"They told all the boys to get off and threatened to cut our throats if we didn't tell them what they wanted. But I knew nothing about their questions," Ali recalled.

The young men were released after five days in captivity. Later, aircraft bombed the militants' hideout, killing their leader, and the group suspected that Ali and the others told the Syrian regime where to strike.

"They put a price on our heads. So we had to leave," Ali said.

The family hastily left Syria with the help of a friend who took them across the border to Turkey and then by bus to Istanbul, where they spent about a month. In late 2013, a smuggler took the family to the Bulgarian border and pointed to an old lumberjack route through the forest - a path into the EU.

A Bulgarian border policeman guards a group of Syrian refugees on the border between Turkey and Bulgaria near the town of Elhovo, October 11, 2013

Bulgaria has had trouble coping with the influx of Syrian refugees

Around this time, with refugees in Turkey facing increasingly difficult conditions, thousands of Syrians and other asylum-seekers crossed the same 30 kilometer-long (19-mile) stretch of land. The area, near the Bulgarian border post of Lesovo, is hilly and wooded, making it hard for thermal cameras to detect people.

The influx trickled to a halt after more than 1,000 police officers were deployed in November to guard the border. The government also completed a large barbed wire fence there in July this year.

Reality check

Ali's first impressions of the EU did not live up to his expectations. Bulgaria is the poorest of the EU's 28 member states, and it has struggled to cope with the arrival of nearly 11,000 people, most of them Syrian - even though they form only a tiny proportion of the 3 million Syrians who have fled the war since it began in 2011.

"In a matter of weeks, the situation became so dire that all the centers were overcrowded, people were sleeping up to 20 [in a room] ... in the corridors of centers, outside," said Boris Cheshirkov, spokesman for the Sofia office of the United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR. "Bulgaria was completely unprepared to handle the influx."

After submitting asylum claims, Ali and his family were moved to the Harmanli refugee camp, an abandoned military barracks about 60 kilometers from the border that had been hastily overhauled to ease overcrowding at other sites. Drizzle was falling from the grey skies and the courtyard had turned into a mud pit by the time Ali arrived.

As the buildings were dirty, damp and hazardous, the refugees were initially put in military tents and converted shipping containers with no access to toilets, water or electricity.

"We stayed like this for two weeks," Ali said, showing pictures and videos on his phone. In some, he and his friends are cracking jokes and smiling. In others, they are clutching infants, shivering in the cold while women prepare meals on bonfires. The only authorities present are a dozen silent policemen and the camp's then-director, a former military man loathed by the refugees.

A street in Sofia

Refugees have not found Bulgaria welcoming

With the authorities caught flat-footed, some Bulgarian citizens and charities stepped in to help, providing food and clothes and trying to improve conditions in the camps. But the refugees' arrival also led to a rise in racist sentiment.

A leader of a small but vocal nationalist party called for "the cleaning of the city" and for "self-defense actions" to be taken in Sofia. On her television show, a parliamentarian from a party that says it represents Orthodox Christian values accused the Syrians of being part of an undercover Islamist invasion.

Police recorded a spike in attacks on people with darker skin in public places, such as bus stops and on trams, in November 2013. Two men attacked a 28-year-old Bulgarian of Turkish ethnicity on his way home from work in Sofia, beating him into a coma.

In April this year, residents of Rozovo, a small village in central Bulgaria, chased out a 15-member Syrian refugee family trying to rent a house there. In September, people from the village of Kalishte protested against plans to enroll the children of asylum-seekers at the local school, while the local council called in vain for the nearby refugee camp to be closed by the end of October.

Prejudice against the refugees is not limited to parts of the Bulgarian public. Even the highest levels of the country's State Agency for Refugees are not immune to it. Nikolai Tchirpanliev, the agency's director, questioned whether Syrians told the truth about conditions in the camps.

Nikolai Tchirpanliev

Nikolai Tchirpanliev, the head of Bulgaria's State Agency for Refugees

"It is well known that Arabs have a tendency to lie. This is part of their ethnic group. That's just how they live," he said in an interview with BIRN.

The statement is typical of Tchirpanliev's outspoken style. The burly ex-military officer also keeps the music loud while receiving visitors in his spacious office. With a smile he suggested that the room was bugged.

But Tchirpanliev has achieved what he was appointed last year to do - sort out the mess in the camps.

During his tenure, the number of agency staff has doubled, the camps have increased their capacity and accommodation has been brought up to international standards.

"Everything seems very correct and ... under control," Tchirpanliev declared with satisfaction.

However, Bulgaria lacks a program to help refugees integrate into society. A previous scheme offering language classes and vocational courses, designed for fewer than 100 people, ended last year. A new program has been drawn up but has yet to be implemented.

Officials suggest it may not make much difference anyway.

"To be honest … all refugees prefer to settle in Western European countries and not in Bulgaria, or anywhere in the Balkans," Tchirpanliev said. "We are just a transit center."

For part 2, on Ali's experiences in Germany, click here.

This story was reported as part of Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Institute, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

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