Long wait for Syrian refugees in Bulgaria
- 31 January 2014
- From the section Europe
In the EU's poorest country, on the edge of Europe, another chapter in the story of Syria's desperate struggle is unfolding.
Since the beginning of last year, more than 6,000 Syrians have walked across the border from Turkey into Bulgaria, fleeing from the war in their homeland and searching for sanctuary in the EU.
Now most of them are stuck in bedraggled camps, in a country that can barely afford to help.
In a former military barracks in Harmanli, not far from the border, rows of prefabricated huts have been set up and families share what space they can find.
In one section, under a roof that has been reinforced against the rain, Walat and his mother are sitting on a bed. He was born here 11 days ago, on European soil but with uncertain status.
"I want him to have a good life," says his mum, Hasna. "A good future and a good home - not like us."
Outside in the snow, people are huddled around small fires and the frustration is palpable. They have been waiting for months to get some kind of documentation from the Bulgarian authorities - it is a painfully slow process.
A list of names is read out. A lucky few are finally getting a temporary permit that will allow them to leave the camp.
But with little money, no jobs, and no Bulgarian language lessons available, it is hardly cause for celebration. They are still in limbo.
There is talk of smuggling routes via Serbia, but most people simply feel trapped - unable to go back to their past lives and with no idea what the future will hold.
"People just want to get out of here, they don't want to stay," says Mohamed Nur Oklah, a refugee from Damascus.
"Some people have relatives in Germany, in the UK, in France and Italy. They just want to get out of Bulgaria."
But for now there are more practical problems to deal with. One family needs a new heater; another needs a pair of shoes to replace old ones that have fallen apart.
Some of them take their problems to Gil Clasby, a British woman who retired to a house in a nearby village two years ago.
Now she volunteers in the camp every day, walking around with a notebook to list the immediate priorities.
"They need everything really - some families have got absolutely no money left at all."
"I've met so many fabulous people here - some of them are doctors, some are engineers, there are all sorts. They have so much to contribute, but right now they need us to help them."
An adjacent building is being refurbished, preparing for new arrivals, and conditions in the camp have been improving gradually. But funding from the rest of Europe has been slow to arrive.
Far more time and money has been spent on reinforcing the nearby border. A state-of-the-art system of thermal cameras is in place, and a wire fence is being built through more mountainous areas.
"You can see the terrain, and this weather," says Hristo Stefanov, a local commissioner of the border police, as we stand in the snow, staring into Turkish territory.
"It's not easy for us, but it's difficult for the refugees as well."
The number of arrivals has certainly fallen with the onset of winter. Last year, Syrian refugees were arriving almost every day in the village of Golyam Dervent, 3km (five miles) from the border.
Angelina Stefanova, 89, recalls sitting on a bench outside her house when a group of about 60 people with children suddenly appeared through the trees.
"I bought them some waffles and some tea," she said. "I feel so sorry for them."
"But these days we don't see so many. There are police in the village everywhere. Sometimes we see lights in the woods, but we don't really know what's going on out there."
For now the focus is on those who are already in Bulgaria.
In the capital Sofia, refugees staying in another camp are holding a small demonstration in sub-zero temperatures as the snow begins to fall again.
They too want documents from the authorities, to give them some sense of certainty.
"We're really doing our best," says Pepi Dzhurenov, the director of the camp, "and I feel their pain".
"But there are many problems here," he admits.
"The process is much too slow, and the heating system in the building isn't good enough. This was a school, it's not meant to be a place for people to live in."
Some refugees even say they would prefer to return to Syria, with all the risks that entails, rather than remain trapped here.
Most admit that they are at least grateful for a sense of safety in the camp. But they had assumed that Europe would be able to offer them more.
Dalia Ahmad arrived in Bulgaria four months ago with her husband and two small children, after fleeing from radical Islamist groups fighting in northern Syria.
Now the family lives behind a curtain in one corner of the old school gym. More than 40 people sleep in the same room.
"This is a poor country and they can't do much to help us," she says. "This really isn't how we thought it would be."
Outside, some kids have built a snowman and a snowball fight has just begun. There are moments of light relief.
But this situation is frustrating for everyone, Syrians and Bulgarians alike.
And when the snow melts, more people will try to come.
"We are a transport corridor for goods," says Danitsa Sacheva, a local PR executive who has been campaigning for better conditions for the refugees.
"It's natural that we have to start coping with the idea that we are going to be a transport corridor for people as well."
A snowball flies past as we talk.
"I think the government is planning for at least 20-25,000 arrivals," Danitsa says. "Any bigger number than that might be really problematic."