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The “refugee”: Bulgaria’s apocalypse surplus. Is resistance possible? (part 2)

Note from the LeftEast editors: This text is the second part of last week’s article The “refugee”: Bulgaria’s apocalypse surplus. Having explored the restrictions for migrant mobility in and out of Bulgaria, the humiliating camping conditions for refugees in Bulgaria, and the complicity of the Bulgarian state in the production of such practices, in the present text Raya Apostolova and Tsvetelina Hristova go on to address the most difficult question: what is to be done? 

R-TIs resistance possible? This question is of course of a rhetorical nature. Despite the tall and barbed-wired walls of detention and open camps, both in the physical and the metaphorical sense, news of protest and anguish reach us from time to time. The most common resistance practices identified in the detention camps are the ones of collective hunger-striking or individual self-harm such as cutting your skin or, as in the case of Javed, self-immolation. Usually, such resistance practices are met with the utmost violence by the prison guards and there are many accounts from asylum-seekers about being confined to dark cells with nothing but a thin blanket. In the paragraphs below we will outline two instances of protest, which we find illuminating in regards to political resistance in Bulgarian camps given the particular conjunction.

In late November of 2013, in the so-called Special Home for Temporary Accommodation of Foreigners, aka detention center, in the city of Lyubimets, a group of Algerian citizens declared a hunger strike. The decision was taken after a humiliating gesture on part of a prison guard who, as recalled by the prisoners, has thrown a dinner food jetton[1] at the feet of an Algerian detainee instead of handing it to him. This provocation was not left unnoticed and the man, for whom the jetton was meant, refused to bow, stating that he will not have dinner that night. In solidarity with him the entire Algerian group[2] retired to their rooms declaring a hunger strike.  Almost immediately prison guards, reinforced by civil cops, entered the rooms where a grotesque fight burst out between the detainees and the police force. As a result 6 Algerians are severely injured: one of them with dysfunctional kidneys after repeated kicks in the bodily part.

The latter case has attracted the attention of the Algerian embassy in Bulgaria and the Bulgarian authorities, in the face of the Ministry of Interior, has been harshly condemned. According to the Algerian embassy the strike has started as a direct consequence of the ill-treatment of detainees in Lyubimets. After an investigation the Algerian ambassador, Ahmed Butash commented:

After the interview [the newspaper 24 hours] published, there was a response; there was an important initiative that we welcome – the joint declaration of President Plevneliev and Prime Minister Oresharski. This political act which aimed at calming the situation down and to call for preponderance of human values and humanism is highly appreciated. But despite this, xenophobic deeds continue. With such a behavior [Bulgarians] risk to dispose off of the image of Bulgaria as a tolerant nation and instead build an image of a racist Bulgaria (24 Chasa, 2013.)

Contrary to the joint declaration mentioned above and the statements given by Algerian officials, the official statement of MoI rejected any accusations of physical abuse in the prison and instead declared that the reason behind the detainees’ protest was their desire to leave the detention center: “unacceptable,” MoI said. The truth is that the story exemplified above combines the two main demands on part of migrants held in closed camps. Namely, end of slow procedures in regards to asylum application proceedings and detention in general, often accompanied by police violence and humiliation.

Alongside the practice of “external address” there is also the practice of “illegal stay” in the opened camps. As many have entered the vicious circle of waiting-to-be-officially-recognized-asylum-seekers and coupled with the danger of racist attacks in the city, more and more people betake opportunities to spend “unlawful” nights at the camps. From time to time police raids, just as the ones taking place in hostels, storm the camps in order to kick out the “night outlaws.” One such raid provoked the anger of African migrants who are the most frequent victims of racism, both social and institutional. In these videos one can see the spontaneous outrage, openly challenging racist practices, after a few cars of the gendarmerie raided the largest open camp in Sofia. The instances of protest in the open camps are not as frequent as the ones in the detention centers but recently there has been a wave of resistance.

Organized political movement that enables vivid critique and outspoken refusal of this pathological situation is non-existent in Bulgaria.  Even if those who find themselves in open and closed camps, those who are constantly being illegalized and those who are continuously subjectified to fit the distinctive type of the “refugee” find a way to self organization, there is not much that awaits them outside of the tall societal walls. Next to the bizarre institutional response and the openly racist reaction to the “refugee wave” in the country, there was also a tremendous humanitarian panic. Tons of clothes, medicines, food are flooding in the camps and calls for “humane treatment” are occupying newspapers, TV stations and of course Facebook. The largest Facebook group of volunteers was voted ‘Person of the Year’ together with the ‘refugees’ in the annual ranking of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. Civil society groups entertained the idea of stepping in to take care of the refugees and educate them, substituting an absent and incompetent state in a very classic liberal fashion. This humanitarian impulse blended with the self-fashioning of volunteers as progressive, civilized Europeans who should generously adopt a protective and merciful stand towards Syrian refugees. Their approach did not challenge the dichotomy between illegal immigrants and refugees and was largely announced as ‘non political’. Aside from that, some participants in the volunteer groups were making stark distinctions between the legitimate needs of refugees and the needs of local Roma living in misery and social insecurity. What they called for was a more European reaction to the refugee crisis – in other words, more of the same.

This response, of humanitarian aid, is indeed reasonable but left alone it only contributes to harsh distinction between “them” and “us.” As Samaddar (2009) explains, “Governing the migrant has become today a task of attending to pathology. Humanitarianism is part of the clinical task.” What we witness in Bulgaria on part of good intended initiatives adds to the production of the “distinct type” and situates the “migrant” in a position of exteriority as if these people do not exist in the same politico-economic and social space, again turning them into aliens.

When we take a closer look into the everyday experience of asylum seekers and refugees we can see that, beyond detention and border control, they share the common experience of an emerging precarious underclass across Europe, and not only there. They are only a part of the flows of people looking for a better life, poor labourers moving across borders and within countries, poor workers and unemployed deprived of basic social security, equal access to the “labour market” and decent housing. There is severe repression being imposed on the poor and marginal members of society and we can see that in the expulsions of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma migrants from France, in the recent laws criminalizing homelessness in Hungary, limiting access to social benefits in UK, and in the way asylum seekers are deemed worthy of a refugee status. Thousands of asylum seekers from war-thorn places and countries with decades-long history of abuse are rejected refugee status on the grounds of having an economic agenda for fleeing their country. The demonized economic migrant is the rejected poor. In the meanwhile, we have the naming and shaming Benefit Street show in the UK and the quite open dismissal of poverty driven protests such as the ones in Bulgaria from the winter of 2013 or the recent uprisings in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Despite the very valid critique of the concept of Fortress Europe, the anti-racist movement needs to respond to the continuous attempts to seal the European border precisely because of its inherently porous character. We need to look at the border, as producing certain class and hierarchical relations, and to identify spaces where we can intervene and bring struggles together. Not least in the border’s double function as exemplified in the case of Bulgaria. Not because we need to continuously, and quite frankly, naively urge for freedom of movement, “humanitarian corridors” or uphold rhetoric of human rights. But precisely because the above mentioned articulations of the “problem” tend to re/produce the distinctive type to the point where “migrants’ movements” are not easily recognizable force in the larger struggles, at least when taken in the context of South-Eastern Europe.

This is especially evident in the border region of Bulgaria where large populations of refugees are trapped, together with locals who are not only geographically but also socially marginalized as a result of the desolation of local industries. This lead to conflicts, cases of solidarity between asylum seekers and local people offering them support and accommodation, but also, very symbolically, to some instances of local Roma people pretending to be Syrians to get access to the accommodation at the local camps and the monthly social benefit of approximately 30 euro. The struggle of asylum seekers is interwoven in the struggles of migrants, unemployed, homeless and socially vulnerable people. Therefore, by nurturing the idea of a separate and independent refugee struggle, distinct from local and international class struggles, we risk further social polarization and alienating “refugees”, once again turning them into aliens and exterior to the local context. Even more, we risk missing the opportunity for articulating a struggle of the “emerging underclass” by repeating the dividing lines set by state institutions and the long unfolding of liberal ideologies.


[1] 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.

[2] At the time of the incident 227 Algerians have been detained in Lyubimets. It is unclear from the newspaper articles if all of them have taken part of the action.