Bulgaria and the Two E.U. Migration Summits

When the refugee crisis was still visible, even in Bulgaria, there were male migrants who behaved badly. In Sofia’s Czar Simeon Street, they were standing in front of a business which offers cheap phone calls to any country in the world, staring at any women on the street. “Come over. Let’s have sex!” one of the refugees shouted, when a lady in her thirties walked by. Most others were laughing.

This kind of scene alone, some people might have thought, proved radical right-wing populists right, whose main purpose is to discriminate and reject anyone who seems different, compared to them. But, in order to keep a sense of proportion, one has to admit that there are Bulgarians and other Europeans who behave that way too.

Also, those macho types in Czar Simeon Street, from Iraq and Afghanistan, were those few migrants who stood out with their unacceptable conduct, while the majority of refugees, among them entire families, kept a low profile. Most of them just wanted to get out of Bulgaria and move on towards Western European countries.

Refugee children in Croatia, 2015. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

During those times, on the peak of the refugee crisis, a lot of disgusting behavior was registered in Bulgaria, but usually not among asylum seekers:

> Refugees were illegally pushed back at borders, beaten and robbed by police and border police officers in Southern Bulgaria, according to NGOs.

> A young refugee was shot dead by a Bulgarian cop in Strandzha. The case was labelled as an accident, in which a bullet fired itself, hit a bridge and was diverted into the heart of the victim.

> Self-proclaimed saviors in southern Bulgaria, who had no right to capture anyone anywhere, hunted down refugees, shackled and beat them.

> Unaccompanied minors among refugees, who turned up in Bulgaria by crossing the southern border illegally, were arrested and jailed, NGOs say, even though this kind of treatment is forbidden even according to Bulgarian law.

> Refugees who applied for asylum in Bulgaria were “supported” by lawyers who did not speak English. The result was that migrants were signing documents they did not understand, since they were written in Bulgarian, and they did not understand what their situation was.

> Some migrants who got the permission to work in Bulgaria were exploited. At a “Pro Market” store near the center of Sofia, an African migrant worked six days a week and 12 hours a day. His job was to unload fruit and vegetables from trucks in the early mornings and to put them on display in front of the supermarket. His monthly salary was supposed to be 600 Leva (306 Euro). But he ended up with half that amount only. “They told me I had put a tomato with a black stain on display”, he told Magazine79.

> Radical right-wing populists in Bulgaria used anti-migrant, xenophobic rhetoric, even though the situation in Bulgaria was always harmless compared to what was going on in countries on the so-called Balkan Route.

> Authorities in some Bulgarian localities refused to hand over documents to asylum seekers whose applications were approved.

> The Harmanli Scandal was caused by Bulgarian authorities. Exactly one and a half years ago, they locked down the refugee camp located there, because of “dangerous mass infections” which did not exist. They did so after radical organizations had staged anti-migrant protests in Harmanli. As a result, some refugees rioted. Accusations according to which police beat up non-participants were never seriously reviewed.

> Paolo Cortese, a Catholic priest from Italy who works in Belene, was threatened and chased away by a mob, only because he accommodated and helped refugees.

At this stage, the number of refugees in Bulgaria is low. At the same time, the old fear according to which Turkey might open its borders and “flood Bulgaria with migrants” is not really funded anymore. At this stage, many refugees try to head north-west via Bosnia. Compared to 1.5 million refugees who made it to Europe since 2015, the number of sea arrivals this year, which is 41,000 according to the United Nations, is very low.

At the same time, Greece and Italy still feel the refugee crisis. So do other countries. The situation on some Greek islands is alarming, especially for the refugees themselves, who survived their journey across the Mediterranean, but are now stuck in mostly badly equipped camps.

Now Bulgaria will be part of two summits, which will deal with the never-ending arguments within the European Union, regarding how to deal with new refugees, and how to distribute those already here. Prime Minister Boiko Borissov will have to throw yet another weekend overboard, since he will be in Brussels for a “mini summit” on Sunday.

Germany, France, Austria, Italy, Spain, Greece and Bulgaria will try to find the lowest common denominator on the question how to handle those aspects, before the big European Council Summit takes place on June 28th and 29th.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is in deep trouble, since her ultra-conservative coalition partner CSU insists on turning back refugees at the borders, who have applied for asylum in other E.U. member states before. The Dublin Regulation should be radically enforced, they believe.

The true reason for their hard stance, which might actually destroy Merkel’s coalition government, are Bavaria’s regional elections, which are coming up in October. The large province’s government will do anything to seem almost as uncompromising as the far-right party “AfD”, which they fear so much.

The new populist government in Italy will not exactly make things easier with its rather radical anti-migration approach. Neither will Austria.

Croatian police with refugees, 2015. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Sure, Bulgaria has a geographical location which could affect the situation again, automatically. At the same time the Balkan country can not really complain since it got a lot of support from Brussels when the migrant numbers increased, some years ago. It is clear that Sofia does not really need to worry about being overrun, or about not receiving any help.

When the E.U. heads of government meet at Rue de la Loi 155 in Brussels, the Europa Building, next week on Thursday, many participants will enter the summit with hopes of preventing most refugees from entering Europe, in case the numbers increase again. Some are dreaming of so-called asylum processing centers outside the E.U..

There is only one aspect everyone in Europe agrees with: Solutions to open questions are badly needed. They were years ago, and they are today.

Photos: During the peak of the refugee crisis in eastern Croatia, taken from video footage.

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