We Asked: Refugees in Bulgaria

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What specific challenges has the position of your country on the refugee corridor between the Mediterranean and Western Europe brought in the past months, in relation to numbers of refugees transiting (issues such as asylum laws, transport, border control)?

Curiously, Bulgaria, despite its geographical location, has not experienced the same number of border crossings as for example we witness in Macedonia, Slovenia, Hungary and Austria. But one’s curiosity is immediately satisfied if she looks at the major newspaper headlines in the country, which unambiguously show that push-backs are a major technique employed by the Bulgarian border police. Let’s look for example at the following statement:

265 migrants have been pushed back at the Bulgarian-Turkish border while attempting to enter the country illegally, announced the press center of the Ministry of Interior. They have been stopped thanks to the speedy reaction of border guards. In addition to this group, 13 more such have tried to enter illegally in Bulgaria in the past 24 hours (Topnovini 2015).

The Bulgarian media, in collaboration with the Ministry of Interior, work in a simple mode of notification. They inform us how many people have been pushed-back, how many people have been hunted down, how many people have been arrested and placed in custody. It does not matter that such actions are illegal. Anyhow, there is no public outrage that would resist such violence against migrants on the one hand, or a European institution that does not silently support such fortification.

It would not be a stretch to claim that the low number of people who try to cross into Bulgaria is partially due to the Bulgarian state’s long standing practices of physical violence at both the border and in detention centers and also to the brutalized existence that people have to endure while in Bulgaria. In a sense, the notion of exception does not belong to the Bulgarian border, where violence is ongoing. There is more of a permanency. The slow asylum procedures, the constancy of unpunished racist violence, the firm state production of homelessness, all function as a red light for those who might have to cross into Bulgaria and people do indeed avoid it.

There are now numerous reports emerging from Dimitrovgrad in Serbia that those who reach the town and come from Bulgaria complain about torture, injuries, and beatings they have suffered. Additionally, unlike other states that have suspended fingerprinting, Bulgaria in fact conducts forced fingerprinting, as it recently emerged after a story by journalist Mariya Cheresheva appeared in the Bulgarian media. Such a practice ultimately marks one’s future as the fingerprinted immediately becomes a prospective victim of the Dublin regulation (unless she is a Syrian) and faces forced return to Bulgaria.

The state is not the only border guard. In addition to German capital, the border is well sealed off now also because of the emerging militia initiatives. For a couple of years now, Bulgarians are encouraged by fascist groups such as National Resistance and the Patriotic Front (represented in parliament) to go to the border and protect it against the intruders. As I write, there are already self-organized groups along the Bulgarian border who go and “hunt” illegals. Hunting is not only metaphorical in this case. Hunting has become a concrete practice. Its emergence is somewhat not surprising considering the employment of similes between the act of catching (залавям) and illegal immigrants (нелегални имигранти) deployed in abundance for years, which in turn effectively reduced migrants to prey to be caught. One such instance was the civil arrest of fifty migrants that took place on October 20th by a group of thirteen game hunters who, as they made sure to inform us, “admire the courage of the three border police officers” who killed an unarmed Afghani boy just a few days prior. When hunters hunt, they look for economic migrants, “who [do] not look like refugees.” Here we see the real effect of the differentiation between economic migrants and refugees, which is indeed very appealing to racists and is invoked in the legitimization of violence against people who cross. These unending attempts to classify the “migrant population” in order to decide who holds the right to cross and whom not, has become one of the central border devices.

How have the state and the police responded to the refugee crisis? How has your country been involved in the FRONTEX and EU border regime prior to the crisis and what has changed since?

Firstly, I would like to emphasis that I do agree with Prem Kumar Rajaram when he says that to frame the current situation as a crisis is to a large degree to depoliticize the issues at hand, to treat them as “an “event” distinct from the political “norm.”” In this sense, I believe we need to be careful not to give the wrong impression that the violence that we see taking place and radicalizing in form is somehow “out of the ordinary.” People who have been dubbed as illegals have been experiencing this type of coercion for decades now. I just think that across Europe, and to a large degree across the radical left in Europe, we have been suffering from the “small numbers” complex.

The relationship between Bulgaria’s migration regime and the EU border regime is one that resembles a navel string. It would be wrong to analyze these two entities separately. Prior to Bulgaria’s accession into the EU in 2007, the country had to “harmonize” its migration apparatus with the European Union’s. An example of this, of course, would be the construction of detention camps for third-country-nationals. Where prior to 2006 “illegal migrants” were detained together with socially excluded and poor Bulgarians, 2007 brought about the first detention camp exclusively built for illegal border crossers. The institutionalization of the detention camps was of course accompanied by humanitarian language and practice of the European type. Where Bulgarian homeless and junkies could rot in the horrific detention facilities in Drujba[1], asylum-seekers were moved to what was presented as a (self-evident) criminals’ paradise: brand new bunk beds, clean floors, kitchens, and in the latest fashion of detention camps even praying rooms. Of course, the violence that was taking place inside the facility in particular and the structural coercion of European politics in general was well guarded by tall and barb wired walls, reminding to all outside spectators that what we have inside are just dangerous people. Naturally, asylum procedures, open camps, provision of minimum living standards, bureaucratic procedures that follow the line of the Dublin regulation, assisted voluntary returns, asylum law, etc, all had to be organized in a way so as to be “European.” Hence, since 2007, we witness criminalization and a particular, historical type of (re)racialization[2] of migrants that follow and are organized along the structural effects and juridical racism of European migration politics.

FRONTEX is in Bulgaria since 2011. That same year the Agency established its mission “Poseidon” in Greece and consequently decided to extend it to the Bulgarian-Turkish border. At first, EU representatives were reluctant when it came to FRONTEX’s presence in Bulgaria. After all, Bulgaria was not (and is still not) part of Schengen, which increases the number of border controls on the way to the West, the country has readmission agreements with Turkey unlike Greece and it has invested a gazillion euro in border surveillance[3]. Yet, considering the political situation after the Arab Spring and the hardening conditions in Syria, FRONTEX was welcomed to stay and as of today it celebrates constant presence at the Bulgarian border. FRONTEX’s company in Bulgaria has been also framed with a celebratory attitude evident for example in the awarding the “For Valor and Merit” First Degree Award to Ilka Laitinen.

Bulgaria’s border regime has to be scrutinized in light of the state’s inability to gain accession to Schengen. For years now, cabinet after cabinet in Bulgaria loses the battle over Schengen and this has been translated into an extreme strengthening of its borders. On October 24 for example, Boyko Borisov used the trope of Bulgaria’s exclusion from Schengen to threaten a sealing off of the Balkan borders to refugees. For a long time now, Bulgaria’s political strategy has been to seal its margin, not let people in or out, so as to prove to its European partners that they can rely on Bulgaria in the fight against illegal migration.

The past six months have been marked by a steady increase in the so-called “specialized actions against illegal immigrants” executed by the Ministry of Interior and the State Agency for National Security (abbreviated as ДАНС in Bulgarian). What that entails is “surprise” visits in hostels, hotels, cafeterias, and parks, where migrants reside or find some kind of support. The goal of these actions is to round up people for deportations and its effects have been detrimental to safe spaces throughout the country.

What I think is changing, in this context of steady and deep-seated brutality, is that we see it moving and diffusing more inland. I would say that we can speak of both intensification and extension of anti-migrant violence, of the hunt I was talking about above. Unlike the images that are coming from Slovenia, where we see people being marched to buses with almost a surgical precision, images that strikingly resemble the rounding up of Jews to be sent to camps during WWII, what we have in Bulgaria is the opposite. People want to, need to escape as there are no buses to take them further in Europe. There is a dispersal of the movement of people through the acts of constant escaping. As philosopher Gregoire Chamayou observes, there is a dimension of a specific power that is present in hunts, the power of hope: “without the hope to escape, no prey will run.” I believe that in the past year, due to the intensified coercion and the crashing of Dublin, people who cross in Bulgaria are trying to shorten their stay in the country to a minimum and accelerating the speed of their escape.

Where is the support for refugees coming from in your country? Which specific organizations (governmental or NGOs), networks of activists and volunteers are involved? Do you cooperate with regional actors and on what levels for which purposes?

The support is mostly limited to local NGOs, supranational institutions such as the Red Cross, groups of volunteers such as Friends of Refugees, and some individual attempts here and there. I would say that the question of refugee-ness has been framed by activists predominantly within humanitarian boundaries and hence, the response has followed the humanitarian and victimizing track with a few exceptions. What is promising in the past months is that there is a growing network of people in the border region who help people cross unnoticed.

When in 2013/2014 many people crossed into Bulgaria and the refugee camps were overcrowded, there was a tremendous humanitarian response. People were collecting clothes, providing food, blankets, medicines, water in an extremely organized manner mostly thanks to the group Friends of refugees. The social centers Adelante and Xaspel functioned as gathering points for volunteers. New Left Perspectives organized a two-day-workshop on the topic of borders, racism, and migration. Asylum-seekers protested regularly the Dublin Regulation in the summer of 2014 and the horrific camp conditions. Sofia airport experienced similar pushes to the ones we saw at Keleti station in Budapest where people insisted on being let out of the country. There have been anti-racist protests in Sofia in the past couple of years, which, despite the low number of attendees, were rather unprecedented for Bulgaria not least because of the articulation of the issues at hand and the demands placed on the table.

In a context of extreme anti-communism, racism that does not stop at the door of nationalists and fascists but is readily imbibed and promoted by intellectuals[4] (including long standing professors who are otherwise labeled as “leftists”) and a state in the business of protecting “European borders and values,” it is extremely hard to organize. The racist voice of the elite is the predominant voice.

What is the response of the local population? What are the main arguments against or in support of the refugees which you have heard?

Heterogeneous. As shown, there have been quite a lot of racist articulations of the so-called “refugee crisis” but also a growing opposition to such articulations. In a way the reactions follow a securitization-humanitarian nexus. Some people see refugees as a threat to national security, to “national labor markets,” to Christian values and all of that jazz. This particular reaction prevailed in the response after the murder of the Afghani boy. Of course, to a large degree this reaction was provoked by the lies that the Ministry of Interior fed us immediately after the murder. Yet, others find it important to perceive the refugee as a true victim who deserves sympathy and care. There are numerous volunteers in the camps and outside the camps who do provide immediate support to refugees. There are many who try to improve conditions not solely in the camps, but by providing classes to children and adults and also legal help. Certainly, there are quite a few attempts to disturb these two lines of rationalizations as well. The New Left Perspectives’ workshop and the recent visit of Eric Fassin to social center Xaspel are such examples.

How do you see the situation evolving in the next months?

It depends. I would not be too euphoric or too depressed. As Althusser would have it, “everything can change at the drop of a hat.”

Yet, what I would like to see is all of this humanitarian force, which we see at the borders of Europe and that is represented by the hundreds of volunteers somehow transform into a radical political project that challenges European politics as a whole. If we stop at this particular juncture and do not push further, we risk following a certain inertia that has been prevalent in the so-called “refugee support movements” and that has depoliticized and created a specific types of “refugee-ness” and “migrant-ness.” This force needs to follow the example of the migrants themselves who were successful to bring the Dublin Regulation, for example, into a halt[5]. For years now activists around Europe have been trying to do this[6]. What we saw at Keleti, in my opinion, was a social and a political movement that confronted the closed European borders, the Dublin regulation, fingerprinting, etc., head on. This movement did not shake solely migration management in Europe, however. It confronted the Apartheid-like European politics that work in symbiosis with the former and that protect the economic and political interests of the elite. In other words, the political movement that emerged, or rather solidified this last summer contested the deep structures of our capitalist societies. I think we need to understand these struggles in these terms in order to be able to unite and cooperate.

Raia Photo
Raia Apostolova is a PhD candidate at the Central European University in Budapest. Raia’s research examines the ideological, political, and practical sources of the political/ economic divide among migrants.


[1] Drujba is a neighborhood in Sofia, where one can find a detention camp for homeless people. The conditions in the camp are humiliating at the very best. In the past, people have claimed that they are served food in small bowls and have to eat “like dogs”. When I last visited Drujba in 2012, the place was surrounded by a tin fence with barbed wire on top.

[2] I say reracialization as in the early 1990s and during the massive liquidation of jobs in the country, the migrant workers were subjected to deportations, pogroms, beatings, and chasings. Where the focus of these pogroms was the internationalist socialist worker, in the 2000s we witness a rearticulation and reorganization of racism along the lines of the “illegal crosser,” the refugee.

[3] For some numbers see: Installation of EUROSUR: more than 38 million Euro, FRONTEX joint operation 2012-2014: more than 10 million Euro, Saturn: more than 1 million Euro, the border fence: nobody really know, but it is certainly more than 5 million Euro.

[4] For example, Ivalylo Ditchev, a frequent political commentator argues in favor of the refugee-economic migrant antinomy, which, as we saw, legitimates racist violence.

[5] Again, we need to be cautious, as only Syrians, and not in all cases, are not endangered by Dublin deportations.

[6] See Hristova, Apostolova and Fiedler (2015) on some critique regarding anti-Dublin activism,apostolova,fiedler–dublin-methodology.html

By Raia Apostolova

Raia Apostolova is from Sofia and a Ph.D. student at the Central European University, Budapest.