“Refugee Apocalypse!”

BULGARIA: A look at asylum seekers’ portrayal in politics and media, the little-known practice of “external addressing” in which corrupt officials collude, and the all-too-familiar rise of fascist gangs with the state’s implicit approval

by Tsvetelina Hristova and Raya Apostolova for LeftEast

In 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 described the thousands who were crossing the Turkish-Bulgarian border, forgetting that the Bulgarian border in particular—and the European border in general—has been a space of much antagonism for some time.

The nervous response 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 cast easily in its usual role: an 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. Or conversely, a victim in need of “our” protection.

The political fist that greets refugees in Bulgaria 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 is unwilling to recognize these similar mechanisms which result in the creation of a subject whose role is to displace class antagonism and who is nonetheless woven into similar hierarchical relations.

The paranoia of the state spread like wildfire. Turning on the TV, one is immediately bombarded by images of crowded detention centers, packed open camps, terrorist threats, and commentators of all stripes who want us to believe that there is a real threat posed by refugees. On the other side of the same disingenuous coin, the public is 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 civilizing acts of mercy from Bulgarian and European society, or else they pose a threat to it.

In either case they need close inspection to determine which ones are worthy of help and sympathy! When one looks under the surface of this absurdity, what she sees is in fact a bottomless disaster instigated by institutional arrangements, inadequate EU policies and long-standing practices that create social polarization. She sees 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. But access to Bulgarian territory has never been an easy endeavor; the proceeding closure of the border is merely the further maintenance of existing 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. This project along the Turkish-Bulgarian border, an operation called “Common Efforts” implying Europe-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 larger efforts by the Bulgarian state to prevent the border-crossing of “illegal refugees.” Already in November 2013, 1400 police officers were sent to the border to support the operations of the border police; according to media reports, 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: On December 6th 2013, he was allegedly 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.

“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.”

It is little known that such push-backs are not just now taking place  as a reaction to a “new” refugee crisis. In August 2012, long before attention was paid to refugees in Bulgaria, 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. – have been the lived reality for years now. And despite Socialist [former] Prime Minister Oresharski’s attempts to minimize such instances or to blame them on the former GERB government, his politics are just the more visible continuation of the same old tactics to present Bulgaria as a trusty European partner and hence a reliable Schengen collaborator.

The preventive measures mentioned above seem to be bearing fruitful results. In October of 2013, 3,626 people crossed the border. In short order this number was progressively reduced: to 1,652 people in November, a few hundred in December and only 50 in January 2014 (by comparison, in January 2013, 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.” Eventually, however, the minister seemed to find his footing and is firm about the “success” of the border operation. He is determined that innovative and stricter control is the solution to avert a potential new wave of border-crossers. And recently, Iovchev declared a full-blown battle against NGOs and activists who reported on push-backs at the border. He framed these stories as “smugglers’ imagination” who are doing everything in their power to harm the country’s image so “illegals” could cross as they wish (quite an ill-considered move on the part of smugglers, we would say, as their business depends on harsh border control).

Bulgaria is actively taking the role of European border guard. Ironically, this means being pressed not only to keep third-country nationals at bay but also to control the mobility of its own citizens to constantly prove they are not taking advantage of wealthier states.

In April of this year, the topic of refugees hit the public once again when it turned out that push-backs involving police violence—even against children—continue to take place. And this 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 explained to the cameras that the objections of the local population are not based on ethnic discrimination but are provoked by fear of security. Englishmen and Russians were then given as examples of foreigners welcome in Rozovo. The protest followed the Bulgarian state rationale of protecting both the physical, political border as well the European post-Cold War neo-conservative conception of a supra border in the “clash of civilizations.” Ultimately, 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, and Austria collaborate in the tournament with the sole mission to act on “European solidarity” and keep people at bay.

Bulgarians appear to relish this evidence of their expedient inclusion in the conception of Europe at large, and recently bestowed the “For Valor and Merit” First Degree Award upon Ilka Laitinen, FRONTEX’s director.  Despite the seriousness of the events and the firm fist with which the EU greets thousands of border-crossers, Europe resembles, more and more, a Brechtian comedy.

Camp(ing)

“To get your hands on an address costs between 500 and 750 euro and as of right now more than 2,000 people practice external addressing in Sofia alone. There is no information about how many of them are in fact homeless.”

As many can imagine, the conditions in Bulgarian camps are humiliating (a point used by the European Commission and the UNHCR to harshly criticize the Bulgarian authorities). Here, however, we won’t focus on the situation in the camps; Bulgarian and European institutions, as well as migrants themselves, have made their point and there are plenty of reports about the Bulgarian camps. Instead, in the next section we will examine a practice that has come to be known as “external addressing” 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 a long time already, combined precarious living conditions with state practices that deepen the insecurity of accommodation. In 2011 and 2012, numerous interviews asylum seekers, mainly from Africa, recounted that leaving the detention centers was conditioned on presenting to the authorities of the camp an address registration for secured accommodation. Since it was virtually impossible for the detainees to secure such accommodation, guards and (some) lawyers began selling them documents for false addresses. We were told they were often as ridiculously fake as, for example, being the addresses of police stations in Sofia.

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 the violence and crowded conditions in the camps in Banya and Pastrogor and arriving in Sofia. The temporal juncture between their arrival in the city and the increased number of people crossing the border to take their places in the camps around Sofia resulted in a “booming market” for external addresses.

In order to have the opportunity for an external address, the “foreigner” has to have a registered asylum application, has to have gone through the first interview (where her fingerprints are taken) and has 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.

Further, if one is indeed to take advantage of an external address, she must sign a declaration with SAR declining social support from the state and forbidding her to seek residence in an open camp anymore. Then the external address is registered with SAR by showing them her contract with the landlady.

With the number of asylum seekers far exceeding the capacity of detention 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 stating asylum seekers must leave a camp within five days after receiving refugee or humanitarian status (or within three days 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 get your hands on such an address costs between 500 and 750 euro and as of right now more than 2,000 people practice external addressing in Sofia alone. There is no information about how many of them are in fact homeless or had resorted to external addresses primarily to flee camp living conditions and hostility.

Simultaneously, the practice of external addressing is highly criminalized. Since the Syrian civil war brought larger numbers of refugees into 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, ostensibly to check the living conditions there but also to look for “illegal” immigrants and inspect registered addresses to see if asylum seekers are really living there. If one is not found at the address she declared, her asylum procedure is terminated—making her subject to expulsion.

This pattern of imposed state restrictions and control—chasing people out of semi-legal or illegal accommodation while not providing any affordable alternative—can also be seen in Germany, for example, where Bulgarian and Romanian immigrant squatters were chased out of an abandoned factory building they had 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 fringes of cities—and society—and legislative changes putting the blame on the poor are common everywhere on the continent. With tens of thousands of uninhabited flats around Europe, property prices are still unaffordably high, sentencing people to either homelessness, precarity, or monstrous debts.

At the same time, squatting is still an outlawed housing option. It’s quite telling that the State Agency for Refugees in Sofia neighbors 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 a camp and had no money to rent a place (this latter has been subject to neo-Nazi attacks and police violence).

The Accomplice State

“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.”

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 [outgoing] government, led by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), managed to form a ruling coalition only by relying heavily on the support of the far-right party Ataka (which has been accused of extremism by Marine Le Pen herself!).

Before that, while still angling for coalition partners, BSP emphasized the similarities between its own political program and the program of another nationalist party, VMRO, which later organized into a group that 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 nationalists’ 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 of being 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 Bashar al-Assad (and was subsequently harshly criticized by representatives of his own party).

Following an assault on a Bulgarian shopkeeper by an Algerian asylum seeker, the actions of neo-Nazis, nationalist parties and the state were frightfully synchronized. Neo-Nazis gathered in large numbers to protest against ‘illegal immigrants,’ some beating up people of color in the streets, some gathering to form informal militias to patrol areas with immigrant inhabitants. Only a few of the beatings were investigated, and while the Minister of Interior initially announced that militia patrols are not allowed, recent amendments in the Law for Interior Order explicitly mention the possibility for citizens to form such paramilitary groups and ‘cooperate’ with the police.

This violence was predictably not limited to anti-immigrant sentiments; two of the victims were Bulgarian citizens of Roma and Turkish origin. The one of Turkish origin had been, quite symbolically, badly beaten 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.

Such mass demonstrations against immigrants resemble the anti-Roma rallies that took place a couple of years ago. Just like the Roma minority, asylum seekers are vilified and myths have started arising in the media citing their monthly income from state social benefits to be over 1,000 leva (500 euro), when the minimum salary in the country is less than 200 euro.

Roma, immigrants and Turks alike mostly shrank in terror during the peak of the neo-Nazi raids, but while some immigrants did not dare to go outside, Roma neighborhoods struck back by forming their own militias to provide protection not forthcoming from the police. State response to this violence was a series of police raids in hostels inhabited by immigrants and asylum seekers.

Originally appeared 2 May 2014 at LeftEast; reprinted with permission.

In Part II of their essay on the refugee situation in Bulgaria, Tsvetelina and Raya offer some possible approaches for combating the pernicious forces described above (which are not only manifest in Bulgaria, it goes nearly without saying). Read it here.

Image Source: Filoxenoi blog

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