Until recently, most refugees entering Bulgaria from Turkey wouldn’t hang around, seeking to continue their journeys towards western Europe. But now they are finding themselves stranded in the EU’s poorest country.
The reason is that tighter border controls introduced since July have made it much harder for people to follow the usual route of crossing from Bulgaria into Serbia, and from there further west.
And if they do make it to Serbia, then getting into Hungary — which last year erected a fence topped with razor wire — has become tougher still with authorities expelling any migrant caught near the border.
Iraqi Kurd Azhuan Arhwanssara, for instance, says that after laying low “20 to a room” in a Roma ghetto in Sofia, he took his chances this summer and tried to cross into Serbia — but was turned back by Serbian border guards.
“We didn’t come this far to give up,” the 22-year-old musician told AFP at a migrant shelter at Vrajdebna in the outskirts of the Bulgarian capital. He’s not abandoning his dream of making it to “England or Canada.”
Ivan Penkov, director of the now overflowing shelter, said that Arhwanssara’s story has become more common in recent weeks, and that in August his facility’s 320 places “were filled up in less than 10 days”.
“Since July, several groups of migrants disappeared from our refugee centre,” Penkov told AFP in a visit this week. “But then they came back, having failed to cross into Serbia.”
Alan, a 13-year-old Syrian, is another case in point. He broke his leg in a forest while trying to cross into Serbia and was turned back, together with his companions, by Bulgarian border police.
And going north from Bulgaria into Romania can be dangerous, since it means crossing the raging Danube river that marks the border between the two countries and where crossing points are rare.
Earlier this week a boat capsized on the river. Three asylum seekers drowned and three went missing, some of them children.
Police are finding ever more refugees hidden in vehicles on the bridge linking the two countries at Ruse, said local police chief Dimitar Chorbadzhiev.
Fewer than 20% of the 5,310 places available in Bulgarian reception centres were filled at the end of May. Now they are almost full.
“Before, more than 90% of those who arrived in Bulgaria left again (for somewhere else). Now they have nowhere to go,” said Georgy Voynov, a lawyer with rights group the Helsinki Committee.
Estimated at around 10,000, the number of migrants stranded in Bulgaria remain modest compared to the roughly 60,000 stuck in Greece or the almost 130,000 who have crossed the Mediterranean to Italy so far this year.
But the Bulgarian government is still worried that it will become a “buffer state” between Turkey and the rest of the European Union where migrants are stuck, according to Interior Minister Rumiana Bachvarova.
Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s response has been to seek help from fellow EU leaders, who are meeting in Bratislava on Friday (16 February), to help stop migrants entering Bulgaria in the first place. Bulgaria has already strung up a barbed wire barrier that will soon cover most of its 259-kilometre (160-mile) border with Turkey.
Bulgaria has already strung up a barbed wire barrier that will soon cover most of its 259-kilometre (160-mile) border with Turkey.
“I want more than statements of solidarity,” Borissov said while visiting Bulgaria’s border with Turkey this week. “At the Bratislava summit I will insist on €160 million ($180 million) being granted immediately.”
He appears to have won the backing of EU President Donald Tusk and European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker who said this week that 200 EU border guards and 50 vehicles would be deployed.
At the same time, Borissov has visited Ankara and Berlin in recent weeks trying to ensure that the EU’s crucial deal with Turkey, under which Turkey stops migrants entering the EU, does not fall apart.
“The consequences of a failure (of this agreement) would be catastrophic,” Borissov said.