Bulgaria is in crisis, a fact that can be seen on every street and heard in almost any conversation. Feeding off the waves of refugees who have recently entered the country, Neo-Nazi groups in Bulgaria are fomenting fears among the local population and creating social and political divisions.
Since June 2013, the number of refugees in Bulgaria has reached over 10,000. Most of these people have fled the horrors of war in Syria, about 2,000 km south of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital city. Human rights organizations expect another 11,000 to reach the Bulgarian-Turkish border in the next year.
Initially, many Syrians left their country through Turkey, headed to the Greek border, and from there to other countries in the European Union. But, at the end of 2012, Greek authorities shut down this route. In response, some refugees took the more perilous journey by sea, facing Greek patrols that tried to push them back into the Mediterranean Sea.
Soon enough, waves of refugees began to re-direct their efforts to the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Rocked by internal problems and protests, Bulgaria was not ready for their arrival.
In the camps outside Sofia, refugees live in the worst conditions. They can go days without food with many depending on the Red Cross for donations. A camp in the city of Harmanli was slated to take in only 500 people but now has over 2000 living in huddled tents. Refugees are provided with no electricity and water and must endure weather conditions that include snow and temperatures as low as -3 Celsius.
Doctors Without Borders has warned of the “disasterous lack of medical assistance” for refugees in Bulgaria. Due to lack of space, hundreds must sleep outdoors. A bathroon can serve upwards of 50 people. Recently, refugees protested after the death of a 35-year-old Syrian man who was not provided medical aid after complaining of chest pain.
The state’s lack of preperation, coupled with little public awareness raising about the refugees and high poverty among the local population have fuelled increasing xenophobia in the country, which is affecting immigrant groups at large.
A few weeks ago, an Algerian man assaulted a 20-year-old woman in a store on Pirotska Street, one of the central avenues in Sofia. While the woman, Victoria, survived, nationalists used the incident to call for action against “immigrant crime.” The nationalist movement, VMRO, and nationalist parliamentary party, Ataka, cynically manipulated the incident to galvanize more support for their group, despite Victoria’s plea to the country’s politicians not to exploit her attack. Since the influx of Syrian refugees began, both Ataka and VMRO have started to advocate for anti-immigrant policies.
Only one day after the call by the nationalist parties, a Syrian refugee, aged 17, was stabbed near a refugee center in Sofia. This was followed by a wave of attacks around the city. An Iraqi-Bulgarian was attacked in front of a mall, a Malian boy was beaten by a group of men, and a Cameroonian mother and child were assaulted by a group of Neo-Nazis. Attackers targeted a hostel for refugees and immigrants and severely beat a Bulgarian man mistaken for being one of them. The man, Metin, is still in a coma. While his assailants have been arrested, the police are generally slow in responding to cases involving immigrant or refugee victims.
These are but a few of the violent incidents facing refugee and immigrant groups in Bulgaria, many of which are not covered by the local media. Arabs and Africans have been particular targets of attacks by nationalist elements and have had to organize in order to protect their communities.
Beyond specific incidents, like the attack against Victoria, nationalist factions have used growing social tensions and the state’s lack of response to violent crime against immigrants/refugees to increase their power and influence in the country. They have formed so-called “civil patrols” to stop immigrants and check that their documents are in order and otherwise
Some activists claim these patrols were formed with the knowledge of the authorities and represent the state’s “abdication to right-wing factions.” The chief prosecutor of Sofia, Sotir Tsatsarov, has ordered the police to monitor nationalist patrols, but activists doubt there will be any concrete results. For their part, the Roma – Bulgaria’s largest minority – have also formed patrols in their districts to protect their people from nationalist groups.
For the first time in Bulgaria, immigrants and refugees are expected to be a campaign issue in the next parliamentary elections, with nationalist politicians presenting refugees as responsible for stealing local jobs. Some five months before the May 2014 elections take place, protests against refugees have already been happening, some in Harmanli and the village of Telish in North Bulgaria where there are plans to build refugee camps.
In response to these developments, on November 17, 2013, over 300 anti-fascist supporters protested in Sofia against racism and xenophobia. Also in November, 112 Bulgarian intellectuals wrote a letter to Chief Prosecutor Tsatsarov regarding the formation of a Neo-Nazi party in the country. The new party named “Nationalist Party of Bulgaria” includes “the formations National Resistance,” “the Bulgarian National-Radical Party,” the local branch of the Neo-Nazi organization, “Blood and Honor,” and a number of other informal groups. The letter highlighted the avowed goal of the Neo-Nazi party, namely to “cleanse Bulgaria from the foreign and alien immigrant scum that has been flooding the towns of Bulgaria.”
The Bulgarian government says it can only provide for 5000 refugees. There are plans to have a 3-meter high wall on the border with Turkey ready by February, pushing refugees and migrants toward even more dangerous routes. Against this backdrop, nationalists in Bulgaria will likely become stronger as they exploit the fears of an improvished population to foment xenophobia. To fight against these trends, Bulgaria needs a broad section of civil society to stand up for the rights of all people in the country, and promote the values of tolerance and understanding necessary for any pluralistic, democratic society.