SOFIA, Bulgaria — Abu Mustafa arrived in Bulgaria almost six months ago, fleeing his hometown of Aleppo in Syria with his wife, his parents and his six young children.
They had no documents but hoped to reach Germany. They were caught, however, while traveling through Bulgaria, the eastern edge of the European Union, and have languished here ever since, stuck in a refugee camp and unable to leave without the right papers.
“We left Syria, but this place is worse. It is like a prison for us,” said the 47-year-old former textile factory manager, standing in front of a decrepit building that had been abandoned for a decade before being turned into a camp for more than 900 refugees, most of them from Syria.
Bulgaria, the poorest nation in the EU, has a refugee crisis. In the second half of last year, hundreds of undocumented Syrians arrived every week, putting a strain on a country ill-prepared for the flood of refugees escaping a civil war.
While the number of Syrians headed to Bulgaria was nothing compared with the hundreds and thousands who’ve escaped to Turkey or Lebanon – Syrian refugees account for an estimated 19 percent of Lebanon’s population – it was far more than Bulgaria had ever expected to receive, and many more than have arrived in other European countries. According to government statistics, 11,606 refugees entered Bulgaria last year, up from an average of about 1,000 asylum seekers a year since 2007.
The country has struggled to find the resources and space to handle them all, even with aid from the EU, which last year pledged 5.6 million euros, about $7.6 million, to help house, feed and process the new arrivals.
In October, the Bulgarian government built a controversial wire fence along a 20-mile stretch of the country’s border with Turkey. That’s significantly reduced the number of Syrians who are crossing but it does little to solve the problem of those who already are here or who find other routes into the nation.
At Voenna Rampa, a communist-era woodwork-factory-turned-refugee-camp in a desolate industrial estate on the outskirts of Sofia, families are crammed into small classrooms, with few bathrooms and no opportunities for work nor school for the children. Refugees spend their days waiting for the official papers that would mean they’re able to move farther into the European Union.
“We are obligated to stay here,” said Mohammed Farman, a 25-year-old dentist from Damascus, who arrived two months ago after fleeing by car through Turkey.
“Some people are here nine months without getting refugee documents. Some people get them after two months. No one explains to us, no one tells us anything, no one cares,” he said.
Several times over the last few months, refugees have staged protests, demanding faster processing of asylum claims.
“None of us here wants to stay in Bulgaria. Life here is very difficult,” said Farman. “But if we try to get further into the EU without documents and they catch us again, they will put us in prison for a year.”
As he spoke, new refugees arrived, carrying their few belongings in bags on their heads. “Look at these people. They only have the clothes on their backs,” he said, shaking his head.
In addition to stretching the country’s resources, the influx of refugees has stoked anti-immigration feelings, with increased xenophobic rhetoric from right-wing politicians and a growing number of incidents of violent attacks on refugees. According to one poll, 15 percent of Bulgarians say they approve of violence against foreigners, while 20 percent want a full closure of the southern border.
Last November, right-wing groups announced the formation of militias, ostensibly to patrol areas with Syrian refugees and protect citizens.
“There are rising tensions and we now have volunteer vigilante units wandering the streets, particularly in areas with refugees, which is very worrying,” said Daniel Smilov, a professor of political science at Sofia University.
“Everyone here is scared about attacks,” Abu Mustafa said. “You can’t go out into the street after 5 or 6 p.m.; you don’t know what might happen.”
Early last month, the United Nations Human Rights Council issued a report that concluded, among other findings, that “asylum-seekers in Bulgaria face a real risk of inhuman or degrading treatment, due to systemic deficiencies in the reception conditions and asylum procedures.”
“We have been extremely lucky that this was one of the mildest winters on records,” said Boris Cheshirkov, a representative of the Human Rights Council in Bulgaria. “If it had been worse, the situation might have been perilous for some of the people in the centers.”
Cheshirkov said the country had improved the way refugees were treated. For example, beginning in February all refugees are housed under hard roofs and receive two hot meals a day from the government.
“There are still major concerns, but the overall conditions and speed with which new refugees are being registered has improved a lot,” Cheshirkov said.
Still, according to refugees at Voenna Rampa, there’s a general lack of medical help, little heat and upward of 30 people living together in each room. Those who are able get money from families overseas, but for most this isn’t possible.
“This isn’t a place to live,” said 26-year-old Bakri Rawas, an English literature student from Aleppo who arrived in Bulgaria two months ago, along with his new bride and his brother, a former soldier in Syria’s army.
Rawas married two weeks before they fled. They bribed their way out of Syria and crossed the Turkish border on foot. Now he has his eyes firmly set on a new life in Sweden.
“Aleppo is better than here, although there is war on there,” he said. “At least I could work in Aleppo and have a life. I don’t know how Germany, France, England allowed Bulgaria into the EU.”
Gillet is a McClatchy special correspondent.