On September 4, 2013, after a long summer holiday, the members of the Bulgarian National Assembly returned for the third plenary session of the year. They were welcomed by the anti-government protests that have occupied Sofia, the capital, for over 100 days. The demands of protesters for government resignation and their very existence for that matter received little to no attention. On that first day of work, the main issue addressed by Bulgarian politicians was the increasing number of Syrian refugees seeking assistance in Bulgaria.
While the rest of the world engages in heated debates over the likelihood, morality, feasibility, and possible outcomes of a military intervention in Syria; analyzes the characteristics and motives of all involved in the conflict; and actively seeks someone to blame for what is happening, the number of Syrian refugees scattered in neighboring countries has surpassed 2 million. The refugee aspect of the conflict in Syria has therefore become a major concern for the countries refugees flee to. Even in the face of national priorities that do not align with addressing a refugee influx, these countries cannot escape the direct impact of the conflict, in the form of Syrian men, women, and children whose lives have been shattered, and are inevitably forced to address the problem.
Bulgaria is one of these countries. It is not a neighbor of Syria, but it neighbors Turkey and such geography has contributed to an increased flow of refugees, specifically in the last several months. The Turkish population feels the strain of added responsibility to care for thousands of foreign people and tensions between refugees and locals increase. The situation is not better in another neighboring country, Lebanon. Resources are quickly exhausted and the desire to help those in need dissipates as scarce supplies are diverted to an international population. Some Syrian refugees realize that Turkey is not the refuge they seek and continue on to Bulgaria, perhaps with hopes for entry into the EU region. Every day, an average of about 50 to 70 Syrians cross the Turkish-Bulgarian border with hopes for a better life. The road to the supposed safe haven is accompanied by as much danger as the region they left, and often what they find at the end of the journey are good intentions and not many helpful practices by the governments of the receiving countries.
Refugees, by virtue of their condition, find themselves in a very vulnerable position: their own country is unsafe and host countries are unprepared and unwilling to accept them. The transition into a refugee status is not voluntary and unlike regular migrants, the ones forced to move are usually not prepared to leave the only homes they have known, often with no idea about their destination and the conditions they will face when they arrive. Severed from their roots, they are placed into a new environment and asked to fit in and live happily. The task proves challenging: although their home country is torn by internal conflicts that endanger their well-being, refugees are more likely to feel nostalgia and be plagued by fear that they might never see their native country again. The interviews with refugees in the Bulgarian refugee centres confirm that sentiment.
In a perfect world, refugees will receive the assistance they need so that their suffering is minimized. (Well, actually, in a perfect world, there would not be conflicts that necessitate concern for refugees, but that may be a bit too much to ask for.) Not surprisingly, however, refugees are often treated worse than voluntary immigrants and are lucky to receive even the bare minimum of services or assistance.
The political leaders of Bulgaria have clarified that the country will very likely not be able to offer proper assistance to the continued flow of refugees and talks about EU funds enter discussions. Reports from the refugee centres support the government’s worry that even though the flow to Bulgaria is not of the extent to other European countries, the increased numbers put a strain on the system. The current holding areas reveal that conditions are dire: overcrowded buildings, unsafe living environments, and lack of basic necessities. While a number of the arrivals are children, educational and recreational opportunities are limited. Some who have crossed the border through illegal means, often with the “help” of a trafficker, are left in detention centres with no hope for assistance until their case has been reviewed by the appropriate authorities. Using the internal protests and the refugee crisis to their advantage, the right-wing party seems to be the only actor to have a clear platform and a position: leaders demand the closing of borders and under claims of patriotism require focus on internal issues, not conflicts in other countries.
Addressing the refugee crisis, however, is vital and demands international engagement. In the absence of help from international players who are able to provide assistance, predatory players–like traffickers–step in to fill the void. After all, war brings business to those who prey on the vulnerable and desperate. Left with no protection, refugees become exposed to advances by a plethora of helpful traffickers.
A recent report by BTV NEWS indicates that the majority of refugees reaching the Bulgarian border are women and children. Some mention that they have paid anywhere from 400 to 2,000 EUROS to be brought from Istanbul to the Bulgarian border. Some experience greater violence than the one that pushed them to leave. Clearly, violence against women is not just prevalent during a time of conflict; it is an everyday occurrence even after women have supposedly escaped the war-torn region and are settled in refugee camps/centres and under the protection of host governments and an array of non-profit organizations.
Certainly, becoming a refugee places a person in a vulnerable position. However, refugee populations should not simply be dismissed as an unfortunate collateral damage for whom doing the basic minimum is sufficient (although sometimes even doing that minimum seems like an unbearable chore in the busy daily schedules of host countries). We should not assume that because they have survived the chaotic situation in Syria, they can certainly make it in the crammed environment of refugee camps. They probably could, and often do, but this does not mean that we should allow it to happen.
The suffering for refugees does not end when they leave the war-torn region; in fact, for many, the separation from their homeland marks the beginning of an arduous journey to unfamiliar and often unwelcoming new abodes. It is not a surprise that many dream of nothing more than to return to Syria. Ultimately, they endure the conditions in refugee areas not because they are times better than the current conditions in Syria, but because they hope for a chance to return to and rebuild their homes.
Krasi Shapkarova is a recent graduate of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, with an MA in International Human Rights and concentration in forced labour and human trafficking. She is now based in the Washington D.C. area.