A raw deal for refugees
By Maria Dimitrova-Pichot, December 2013. http://bnr.bg/en/post/100223928/a-raw-deal-for-refugees
Being a refugee is no picnic. Millions of refugees wander around the world in search of a better place to live than their own troubled countries. By force of circumstance refugees are both intruders and casualties. They have to rely on the kind hearts of those who have a peaceful home and country. But what the world has to offer them is not always enough. The wave of refugees from Syria that has been growing since August found Bulgaria unprepared. The conditions this country is offering the 11,000 people who have crossed its borders illegally are below standard. The refugee camps are bursting at the seams, living conditions are dire. Some of the people who have set foot on Bulgarian soil already regret it. Others are desperate to obtain refugee status so as to leave for the wealthier EU countries.
The people put up at a former student dormitory in Ovcha Koupel residential area of Sofia can thank their lucky stars. At least they have a roof over their heads and every family has a room of their own, unlike the people accommodated in schools and other buildings, says Lama from Syria, mother of four as tears well up in her eyes:
“We want to thank the Bulgarian government for accepting us. I am very, very grateful. I can’t go on, because it will make me cry.”
But the mood is very different among a group of young Palestinians who have abandoned the hope of ever obtaining refugee status. They have tried to cross over to Romania three times. Their wish is to reach Sweden or at least Germany:
“We have no money, no work, no hot water, and outside it’s cold and wet. We ran out of money and now everything is a problem.”
From one of the best refugee camps in Sofia we head for the camp that has the most problems – the one in Harmanly, close to the border with Turkey, the country the bulk of immigrants come from. Opened in a hurry at the beginning of August, it was overcrowded before the construction work was even completed. It was supposed to offer the best conditions – family caravans with bathroom and kitchen, hot water and central heating for 430. At the moment the camp accommodates 1,300 refugees, most of them living in tents, right on the bare ground, they don’t have water, electricity or heating. Electricity was only installed in the caravans a week ago. The old barracks are being renovated so that the people from the tents can be transferred there and should be ready within 10 days. In Harmanly there are 300 children and some 20 pregnant women. The expression used most often here is mafi, in Arabic meaning there isn’t any.
In front of one of the tents we see the sad eyes of a little boy who is running a fever. His grandmother Nerima says:
“We are all fleeing from the horrors of war. But here at the camp conditions are very bad, there is no water, no sewerage, no money, no food, no medicines, our children are all sick now that it is cold. We hope so very much to go to Western Europe. I have a brother and a sister in Germany and cousins in France. If conditions were better here we wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.”
We are at the camp at one of the rare times when a charity organization is making a donation. The protestant church and the Samaritans association from Stara Zagora have brought shoes and clothes for the people from the tents, all of them soaked to the skin and freezing. They sit in front of their tents warming themselves by large tins where they burn anything they can find. They use empty cans for plates. Humanitarian organizations have brought two pediatricians here to take a look at the children. Some of them are taken to the hospital in Harmanly with otitis and bronchitis. The volunteers travel to the town to buy and donate the necessary medicines. A Palestinian doctor from Jordan who has studied and now lives in Bulgaria helps his colleagues with the translation.
“Most of the children have a cough, a cold or bronchitis, otitis and almost all of them have diarrhea and stomach pains,” he says. ”We came here to help any way we can. Conditions are awful here. It is raining, cold and you can see for yourselves how people are living here. The living conditions are like in the refugee camps in Vietnam in the 70’s and Cambodia in the 60’s. But it is a disgrace to have living conditions like this in a European country.”
I am very angry, says Diana Dimova from the Samaritans association. This is her third visit to the camp and things are getting worse, rather than the other way round.
“The conditions are horrific,” she says. “Night time temperatures drop below zero. If things go on like this I expect people to die. This is a humanitarian crisis. We realize it is not easy to cope with 10,000 refugees. But so much time has gone by and I still don’t see a clear plan of action, everything is total chaos. I feel for the police working here, and for the social services from the town who volunteer to try to help these people, but they have neither the strength nor the money.”
The camp’s director Zhelyo Zhelev is also angry because during a recent riot, the refugees smashed some of the new bathrooms and toilets in the caravans. He says that by doing so they were hoping to be transferred sooner to another country with better conditions. Does he feel abandoned by the government?
“I think we have been abandoned by Europe, not by the government,” he says. “The government is doing its job, but Bulgaria’s capacity is small. We are a nation of 7 million, the population of a large European city. Our people here are badly paid and themselves emigrate to Europe. We need money to provide refugees with a decent quality of life, as well as human resources which have been exhausted.”