Nikolay Doychinov / AFP / Getty Images

In Bulgaria, refugee struggle underlines elusive European dream

The EU’s poorest country has accepted an asylum seeker quota, but few want to live with so few social services

SOFIA, Bulgaria — Noel Kouaho’s epic, two-year journey from Côte d’Ivoire to refuge in the European Union’s poorest country cost him seven of his toes.

In January, Kouaho, 43, slept in a park across from the overcrowded Ovcha Kupel government refugee center on the outskirts of Bulgaria’s capital city, Sofia. In the country’s refugee community, the empty lot was known as the Hotel Ritz, and Kouaho and several dozen other African refugees spent two weeks in the dead of winter there without shelter or blankets.

Eventually, frostbite claimed all five toes on his right foot and two on his left. A volunteer doctor amputated the toes and pushed the authorities to give Kouaho a bed inside the center.

Today, Kouaho is still slowly recovering at the shelter. But as soon as he is able to walk normally again, he’ll leave Bulgaria to seek a better life elsewhere in Europe, he said.

“There are no good conditions in Bulgaria for living,” he said. “I get my papers, I get my freedom, and then I am leaving. There is no work, no help, no money. Everyone is leaving here.”

Laundry hangs from windows at the main refugee center on Jan. 9, 2014, in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Sean Gallup / AFP / Getty Images

When Kouaho first arrived in Bulgaria in 2013, he came among a stream of asylum seekers that then put this Balkan country on the front lines of what is Europe’s greatest refugee crisis since World War II.

Before Budapest’s Keleti train station became a desperate scene of refugees from the world’s worst conflicts, Bulgaria was struggling to cope with an influx of asylum seekers whose numbers seemed to multiply overnight.

Prior to 2013, Bulgaria saw an average of 1,000 illegal migrants annually cross its border with Turkey. But in the summer of 2013, that number multiplied exponentially. Hundreds were crossing each day, mostly Syrian refugees escaping their country’s brutal four-year conflict. Afghans, Iraqis and Africans also arrived seeking refuge from war, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant armed group, and political oppression.

While other eastern European countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have balked at accepting more aylum seekers, Bulgaria announced last week that it would accept a new quota system proposed by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Bulgaria’s migrant numbers are just a fraction of the numbers now coming to Greece and Italy. In the first eight months of 2015, Bulgaria processed 10,600 asylum requests.

But most refugees, like Kouaho, quickly find they don’t want to stay in Bulgaria, and this only adds to Europe’s problem of controlling the mass migration of refugees flowing into the continent.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is predicting that close to 500,000 more refugees will reach Europe’s borders in 2016.

“Migrants coming here know Bulgaria has very little to offer them,” said Philip Gounev, Bulgaria’s deputy interior minister. “They want to leave as soon as they arrive.”

Bulgarians are struggling in one of the Europe’s weakest economies, which is also rife with corruption. The average monthly salary hovers around $400, and unemployment is about 10 percent. There are few available labor jobs, and many Bulgarians travel elsewhere in Europe to find work in areas like construction and domestic labor.

Refugees warm themselves near bonfires in a refugee camp located in former military barracks in the town of Harmanli, southeast of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, on Nov. 12, 2013.
Nikolay Doychinov / AFP / Getty Images

Then there is the added difficulty for migrants to learn the local language, Bulgarian, which is essential to social integration. While refugees have the right to attend state schools, the Bulgarian government does not provide free language classes.

When the refugee crisis first hit in Bulgaria in mid-2013, the country’s security and state agencies were caught off-guard, Gounev said.

The country hastily created basic facilities to accommodate the asylum seekers, beefed up the number of border police and erected a fence along the most porous part of the border with Turkey. It implemented a more streamlined system for processing asylum applications, and attempted to track down smugglers trafficking refugees in and out of the country.

The government’s efforts were effective in the sense that the country was able to meet the minimum requirements of the European Union’s guidelines on handling migrants. About 1,500 migrants are registered as crossing the border in September, though hundreds more avoided being registered, according to statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), so they could seek asylum in more prosperous European countries.

Life is hard for the refugees who forgo the temptation to try moving further into Europe. There is temporary housing in refugee centers made from converted, former Communist Party buildings or dilapidated schools, and refugees receive about 135 Bulgarian levs, or $78 a family, per month, according to Tzvetko Tzankovski, the director of Refugee Support Group, a local charity.

Once migrants receive asylum, they are supposed to move out and find their own housing, a difficult feat for refugees who often have no job prospects. Many landlords are also unwilling to rent to refugees and there are no government-sponsored integration programs, he said.

“Why would they stay with so little chances for them to succeed?” Tzankovski said. “The fear is that for those that do stay, a lack of real attempts to integrate them into society will lead to longer-term problems. There are real concerns about this here and elsewhere in Europe.”

While hundreds of migrants arrive each week, just as many leave the country, typically smuggled over the border to Serbia, where they try to make their way to more prosperous and generous countries in Europe.

As of September 2015, about 6,800 refugees have come in illegally, meaning they didn't apply for asylum; while just over 5,000 have illegally left Bulgaria without being processed at a border checkpoint, according to the UNHCR. 

“We warn them about the situation in Hungary and other places right now is very tough, but they don’t believe us and think it’s just Western propaganda for us to get more funding for Bulgaria,” Tzankovski said. “They all believe in the myth of Germany, where they think they are going to be given a house, two cars and a generous social package.”

Like Kouaho, Mohamed Ibrahim Paiwaston, a 23-year-old Afghan, is trying to find his way out of Sofia. Three months ago, he left Kabul with 36 other Afghans. A smuggler had promised to get him to France for $6,000, so he set off on a dangerous trek by foot and bus that led him across Iran, into Turkey and finally across the border into Bulgaria. Along the way, Iranian police shot and killed two of his fellow travelers, and 33 were arrested and deported back to Afghanistan. Only he and another Afghan man made it safely into Turkey, where they split up.

He now spends his days with other Afghan refugees at an Internet café opened last year around the corner from the Ovcha Kupel refugee center. Here, they can call home on Skype, drink tea and plot out their next moves.

“Bulgarian people [are] not bad, [they are] very good,” he said, when asked if he and the other Afghan migrants had faced xenophobia during their time in Sofia. Bulgaria’s population is about 10 percent Muslim, but the Slavic nation is predominately Orthodox Christian and conservative. “I can go to the mosque here, not problem. But no work here, nothing. I will go to France and study law. In three months, I’ll learn French, no problem.”

Small-time smugglers willing to take refugees to the northwestern border with Serbia lurk around the Internet cafe, and the refugees know they are there when they need them. Most are cautious, however.

Paiwaston’s smuggler, who promised to get him to Paris back in July, wasn’t answering Paiwaston’s repeated calls now that he was stuck in Bulgaria. The young Afghan knows he’s been duped.

“My father will send me $600 and I will get another smuggler to take me,” he said. “But here, [there is a] very big problem with work and I cannot study here. In France, [it would be] no problem.”

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