All posts

The “refugee”: Bulgaria’s apocalypse surplus (part 1)

by Tsvetelina Hristova and Raya Apostolova

R-TIn the summer of 2013, as a mass of people was fleeing the escalating conflict in Syria, Bulgaria experienced its first “real” push at the border. Or at least this is how media outlets and commentators attended to the thousands who were crossing the Turkish-Bulgarian border, forgetting that the Bulgarian border in particular and the European border in general, has been for some time a space of much antagonism. The nervous response that took place to this “real” push, at both the public and institutional levels, was by no means surprising for those of us who closely follow the destiny of the thousands seeking protection in Europe.  The image of the “refugee” was easily settled in its usual role: uncontrollable, dangerous, disease-spreading and employment-sapping subject who is here to take advantage of “us,” of “our” social security, to further contaminate “our” peace. Nevertheless, a victim in need of protection. The political fist that the “refugee” was welcomed with is very similar to the “western” obsession with Bulgarian and Romanian “poverty migrants,” “Roma nomads,” and “social benefits tourists.” Yet, for the most part, Bulgarian society was unwilling to recognize these similar mechanisms which result in the creation of a subject whose role is to displace class antagonism and who, nonetheless, is weaved into similar hierarchical relations.

The paranoia of the state spread like wildfire. As one was to turn on the TV, she was immediately bombarded by images of crowded detention centers, packed open camps, terrorist threats, and all sorts of commentators who wanted us to believe that there is a real threat posed by the “refugee.”  On the seemingly other side of the coin, the public was consumed by images of suffering mothers, horrific war stories, and endless calls for humanitarian aid. The public discourse was largely playing with those two images, creating an either-or dichotomy in public opinion. The “refugee” is an embodiment of a contradictory unity: humanitarianism and securitization are opposed and united; one is opposed to the other but at the same time can only exist in relation to each other.  Asylum seekers can either be objects of humanitarian endeavors and, thus, enjoy the civilizing acts of mercy from the side of Bulgarian and European society, or else, they pose a threat to it. In either case they need close inspection that will determine the ones worthy of help and sympathy. When one is to closely look under the surface of this absurdity what she sees is in fact a bottomless disaster instigated by institutional arrangements, inadequate EU policies and long lasting practices that create social polarization and indeed a figure who Europe has framed as a “refugee” – a distinctive type. It is a type indefinitely infantilized and disciplined and never with a voice of its own or demands to be heard.

How (not) to reach Bulgaria

Access to Bulgarian territory is highly restricted at the moment. In fact, access to Bulgarian territory has never been an easy endeavor and the ongoing closure of the border is the further maintenance of restrictive tactics, both physical and symbolic, which are an extreme expression of the criminalization of border-crossing subjects. The ongoing construction of a wall between Bulgaria and Turkey is one such instance. The operation of the fence erection along the Turkish-Bulgarian border, called “Common Efforts” and implying European wide solidarity against external “intruders,” will comprise 32 km between Lesovo and Kraynovo, standing 1m off the border line. The fence is a continuation of the larger efforts on part of the Bulgarian state to effectively prevent border-crossing of “illegal refugees[1].” Already in November 2013, 1400 police officers were sent to the border in order to support the operations of the border police and, as reported by media outlets, guards could be spotted every few hundred meters.

News of physical abuse and push-backs followed shortly. One such account is given by a Syrian citizen. According to him on December 6th 2013, he was beaten by border police in the region of the river Kalamitsa and then forcefully returned to Turkey. This same month journalists went to the green zone with a hidden camera and from their report it became clear that “we [the border guards] are not given clear instructions on how to proceed when we see refugees. We are just told to beat them and return them to Turkey.” The Border Police headquarters renounced such statements.

It is little known that such push-backs are not taking place simply because of the “refugee crisis.” In August 2012, long before attention was paid to the “refugee,” a team of researchers visited the transit camp in Pastrogor, close to the Bulgarian-Turkish border, where similar stories surfaced. These stories, alongside with tales of border entrepreneurship – including luggage “disappearance,” lawyer/translator payments, etc. – are the lived “reality” for years now. And despite Socialist Prime Minister Oresharski’s attempts to minimize such instances and to point the finger at the former GERB government, his politics are just the more visible continuation of the same old tactics to present Bulgaria as a trustful European partner and hence reliable Schengen collaborator.

The preventive measures mentioned above seem to be bearing fruitful results. In October of 2013, 3626 people crossed the border. By November, this number had been reduced to 1652 people, a few hundred in December and only 50 in January 2014 (in comparison in January of 2013, when 193 people crossed the border). Bulgaria’s Minister of Interior, Tsvetlin Iovchev was at first timid when he commented on the measures undertaken against the “illegal refugees.” On the one hand the Minister seemed to be firm that the results of the border operation have been successful. Yet, he was determined that innovative and stricter control is the solution to avert a potential new wave of border-crossers. Recently however, Iovchev declared a full-blown battle against NGOs and activists who reported about push-backs at the border. He framed these stories as “smugglers’ imagination” who are doing anything in their power to harm the country’s image so illegals could cross as they wish. Quite an unthoughtful move on the part of smugglers, we would say, as their business depends on harsh border control. Bulgaria is actively taking the role of a European border guard. Ironically, being pressed not only to keep third-country nationals at bay but also to control the mobility of its own citizens and to constantly prove they are not taking advantage of the wealthier states.

In April, the “refugee topic” hit the public once again when it turned out that push-backs that involve police violence, even against children, continue to take place as reported by Border Monitoring. The news about the latest instance of push-backs coincided with a protest in the village of Rozovo organized by the local population against the inhabitants of a house – 17 Syrian citizens, among them 6 children, who rented the local premises. The protests were accompanied by slogans such as “Bulgaria to the Bulgarians!” and the hanging of Bulgarian flags to emphasize that the house belongs to Bulgarians. A local man who described himself as a former “gurbetchia[2]”, explained to the cameras that the objections of the local population are not based on ethnic differentiation but are provoked by fear of security. English men and Russians on the other hand are welcomed in Rozovo, according to the locals. The protest followed the Bulgarian state rational of protecting the border in particular and the European neo-conservative and post cold war era rationale of a “clash of civilizations” – the supra border. At the end, the Rozovo locals pushed back the Syrians.

The border triangle between Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece more and more resembles an international ping-pong match. FRONTEX missions have become an inseparable part of border life in the region, where countries like Germany, Poland, France, Austria, etc. collaborate in the tournament with the sole mission to act on “European solidarity” and keep people at bay. FRONTEX is in fact a Bulgarian national hero as seen in the recent “For valor and merit” Ist degree award served to Ilka Laitinen, FRONTEX’s director.  Despite the seriousness of the events and the firm fist with which the EU attempts to serve thousands of border-crossers, Europe resembles more of a Brechtian comedy.


As many can imagine the conditions in Bulgarian camps are humiliating: a point which the European Commission and the UNHCR used to harshly criticize the Bulgarian authorities in regards to handling the Crisis. Here however, we won’t pay attention to the situation in the camps. Bulgarian and European institutions, as well as migrants, have made their point and there are plenty of reports about the Bulgarian camps. In the next section we will analyze a practice that has come to be known as “external address” and show the increased precarity among asylum-seekers and refugees as well as a structural condition that produces homelessness.

Housing arrangements for asylum seekers have for long combined precarious living conditions and state practices that deepen the insecurity of accommodation. In 2011 and 2012 in numerous interviews asylum seekers, mainly from Africa, recounted that leaving the detention centers was conditioned on presenting an address registration for a secured accommodation to the authorities of the closed camp. As it was virtually impossible for the detainees to get one, guards and (some) lawyers were selling them false addresses, and as we were told, those were often as ridiculously fake as, for example, being the addresses of police stations in Sofia.

Ever since 2012, obtaining an external address has become much harder and a subject of state control. In the summer of 2012, people increasingly started leaving both the violence but also the crowded conditions in the camps in Banya and Pastrogor and arriving in Sofia. The temporal juncture between arrivals from the camps situated outside of Sofia and the increased number of people who crossed the border, resulted in the booming of a “market” for so-called “external-addresses.” This practice embodies an extension to the effective boundary-making by state authorities, sharpening control techniques within the “sovereign territory” and ultimately producing the differentially included subject.

In order to have the opportunity for an external address the “foreigner” has to have a registered asylum application, to have gone through the first interview (this is when your fingerprints are taken) and to have the so-called green/blue card issued by the State Agency for Refugees (SAR): a cardboard paper which includes the name, the foreign number and the picture of the asylum-seeker. If one is indeed to “take advantage” of an external address he/she signs a declaration with SAR that he/she declines social support from the state and that s/he cannot seek residence in an open camp anymore. The external address has to be registered with SAR by showing them your contract with the landlady. With the number of asylum seekers exceeding the capacity of the centers, more and more of them are driven to look for housing outside of the camps, some voluntarily and some forced by the new rules that state asylum seekers should leave the camp within 5 days after receiving a refugee or humanitarian status and within 3 after the final rejection. Many resort to external addresses also because of a fear of detention in a closed camp. However, what is important here is that many of these cases are in fact “faked.” To put your hands on such address costs between 500 and 750 euro and as of right now more than 2000 people practice external address only in Sofia. There is no information about how many of them are in fact homeless and have resorted to external addresses just so they can flee camp living conditions and hostility.

Yet, the practice of external addressing is highly criminalized. Since the Syrian civil war brought larger numbers of refugees in Bulgaria and more media attention to refugee related issues, the authorities have responded in two ways. On the one hand, there have been raids in hostels offering accommodation to asylum seekers to check the living conditions there and the presence of illegal immigrants and inspections of registered addresses to check if asylum seekers are really living there. If one is not to be found at an address s/he has declared her asylum procedure is terminated, hence becoming subject to expulsion.

The same pattern of imposed state restrictions and control chasing people out of semi-legal or illegal accommodation while not providing any affordable alternative could be seen in Germany where Bulgarian and Romanian immigrant squatters, for example, have been chased out of an abandoned factory building they have been inhabiting for more than two years. It relates to a larger trend of limiting access to social benefits and social housing and criminalizing the state of poverty and social vulnerability. Gentrification projects driving the poor to the outskirts of cities and society and legislative changes putting the blame on the poor are flooding the continent. With tens of thousands of uninhabited flats around Europe, property prices are still unaffordably high, sentencing people to either homelessness or precarious life or to monstrous debts. At the same time, squatting is still an outlawed housing option. It’s quite telling that the building of the State Agency for Refugees in Sofia was neighbouring two squats – one used by Roma families, recently dismantled by a private owner who wants to build a private home for elderly people, and one used by migrants who were not allowed accommodation in the camp and had no money to rent a place. The latter being subject of neo-Nazi attacks and police violence.

The accomplice State

Even if we go beyond the much-used lament of the absent state that is reiterated by NGOs and humanitarian activists, the role of the government in this so called ‘refugee crisis’ has been disturbing. To start with, the current government led by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) managed to form a working majority relying heavily on the support of the far-right party Ataka (accused of extremism by Le Pen herself). Before that, during the post-election period and while on the look-out for political partners, BSP had pointed out the similarities between its own political program and the program of another nationalist party – VMRO. The latter organized into a group and tried to seal off the border after the first days of the refugee influx caused by the Syrian war. The rise of xenophobia and racism in Europe has been very noticeable in Bulgaria and Post-Socialist Europe in general and the state’s reaction to it has been, to say the least, quite modest. Amidst official statements about the threat to national security and public health posed by the refugees, the state has literally followed the nationalist’s agenda by virtually closing the border and setting in motion its plan for building a protective wall along some part of it. Media and politicians doubted the authenticity of Syrian refugees, suspecting them to be jihadists infiltrating the country through Turkey. A member of the parliament from the governing party visited Syria to discuss the crisis with the government of Basar Assad and was subsequently harshly criticized by representatives of his own party.

Following an assault on a Bulgarian shop-keeper by an Algerian asylum seeker, the actions of neo-Nazis, nationalist parties and the state have been frightfully synchronized. Neo-Nazis gathered in large numbers to protest against ‘illegal immigrants’, some beating up people of colour in the streets, some gathering to form informal militia to patrol around areas with immigrant inhabitants. Only few of the beatings were sanctioned and while the Minister of Interior initially announced that he has not allowed militia patrols, the recent amendments in the Law for Interior Order explicitly mention the possibility for citizens to form such paramilitary groups and ‘cooperate’ with the police. The violence that unleashed did not contain itself in anti-immigrant sentiments; two of the victims were Bulgarian citizens of Roma and Turkish origin. The one of Turkish origin had been, quite symbolically, beaten badly by neo-Nazis once before, during a protest organized by Ataka against the singing of the imam in the only mosque in Sofia and against the numerous people praying in front of it, for lack of room inside. The mass demonstrations against immigrants resembled the anti-Roma rallies that took place a couple of years ago. Just like the Roma minority, the asylum seekers were vilified and myths started arising in the media that cited their monthly income secured by state social benefits to be over 1000 leva (500 euro), when the minimum salary in the country is less than 200 euro. Roma, immigrants and Turks alike sank in terror during the peak of the neo-Nazi raids, and while some immigrants did not dare to go outside, Roma neighborhoods struck back by forming their own militias to get the protection that was not forthcoming from the police. The response to this violence was a series of police raids in hostels inhabited by immigrants and asylum seekers.


[1] “Illegal refugees” is a commonly used term by governmental institutions and media outlets.

[2] Gurbetchia is someone who goes to work abroad. Usually linked to the working classes.

[3] In order for one to receive her portion of food, she must have a jetton. The jettons are distributed by the prison guards before each meal.

3 replies on “The “refugee”: Bulgaria’s apocalypse surplus (part 1)”

Comments are closed.