Immigration: the new Europe

Syria’s civil war has created a refugee crisis in Europe, where xenophobia is on the rise. A new ‘Irish Times’ series begins with this report from Harmanli refugee centre, in Bulgaria

The number of people seeking asylum in Bulgaria has increased tenfold since war broke out in Syria. Suzanne Lynch visited the Harmanli refugee camp to see the living conditions of the estimated 1,000 Syrian refugees living there. Video: Suzanne Lynch


Deep in the bleak Bulgarian countryside, 50km from the EU’s border with Turkey, the chilly January silence that envelops Harmanli refugee centre lifts momentarily with the sound of children playing.

But Khansa Abd El-Rahman, a Syrian mother of six, is impervious to the children playing at her feet as she recounts her journey into Europe. “I left Damascus last year, when the fighting became too bad. I travelled with my uncle and brother through Turkey, but I don’t know where my husband is. There is no communication or electricity in Syria. I need help.”

Khansa Abd El-Rahman is one of millions of refugees who have fled the civil war in Syria. It has spawned a huge refugee crisis, with two million Syrians estimated to have left their homes. While Lebanon, Turkey and other neighbours have absorbed much of the exodus, European countries have received an estimated 64,000 refugees from the troubled country.

Located at the easternmost edge of the EU, Bulgaria – itself the union’s poorest country based on income per capita – has found itself at the coalface of the Syrian refugee crisis. Before the Syrian war Bulgaria typically received about 900 asylum seekers a year. Last year about 10,000 irregular migrants entered the country.

Vassil Danov of the Bulgarian state agency for refugees concedes that the country found it difficult to cope. “We saw a tenfold increase over a short period. In October 2012 we had about 320 refugees for the entire month. This October we received 3,400. Our centres were full to capacity. We were completely understaffed.”

Harmanli is one of the emergency centres the Bulgarian authorities opened last year in a bid to manage the influx of asylum seekers. About 1,000 refugees, most of whom paid smugglers to secure their passage out of Syria through Turkey and into Bulgaria, live at the decrepit former military barracks as they await news of their refugee-application status.

Pressure from NGOs such as Amnesty and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has helped to improve conditions at the camp. Refugees were initially housed in tents, many of which flooded with freezing water when the first of Bulgaria’s winter snow began to melt in December, but the tents have been replaced by small prefabs. But conditions are still dire. Children light open fires to keep warm, there are no showers and temporary toilet facilities are frequently blocked.

Abd El-Baqi Ja’afar Ismael, a 52-year-old electronic engineer from Damascus who heads a residents’ committee in the camp, says conditions have improved. He arrived a month ago with his wife, who is a lawyer, his daughter, who is a medical student in Damascus, and his son. Among the recent initiatives is a makeshift school, he says, as he leads the way up a filthy flight of stairs to a room where 60 children are gathered on the floor.

Among the asylum teachers who volunteer to teach the children are 23-year-old Mohammed El-Masalmi, 21-year-old Yasser Rayyer and 20-year-old Maher Sa’eed. Like many men in their 20s who have fled Syria, they were obliged to join the Assad regime as soldiers. El-Masalmi, who had been studying tourism in Damascus, recounts his passage into the EU, entering Bulgaria under cover through a forest that straddles the Turkey-Bulgaria border, where he was picked up by police.

His work in the school helps to while away the hours as he waits for his application for asylum to be processed. Once he receives his papers he plans to move to Germany or Sweden. “Nobody wants to stay in Bulgaria. Maybe 1 per cent will stay, but it’s a poor country, and there’s no work for us. We’re trying to get a better life. Somewhere we can get work. A real life.”

Although conditions may be improving at camps such as Harmanli, the mood in Bulgaria is hardening against refugees. Staring down from huge black-and-red billboards along the country’s roads is the face of Volen Siderov, the leader of a far-right party, Ataka. The party, which has its own TV station, joined the coalition government after last May’s general election, campaigning under the slogan “Give Bulgaria back to Bulgarians.”

Although its policies of ethnic nationalism won the party about 8 per cent of the vote, Ataka faces competition from the emergent Bulgarian Nationalist Party, whose cofounder Simeon Kostadinov has been widely condemned by human-rights groups as a neo-Nazi. Both groups have tapped into a rise in xenophobic feeling in the country, fuelled in part by the gruesome stabbing of a 20-year-old Bulgarian girl by an asylum seeker in Sofia in November. Huge anti-immigration protests followed, with ultra-right leaders urging citizens to form patrols to defend themselves against foreigners.

The pattern of rising xenophobia in Bulgaria is evident across the EU. Political extremism is emerging as a feature of the European political landscape and is widely expected to shape the political debate in the run-up to the European Parliament elections in May. Fuelled by the economic crisis, parties of the extreme right and left have sprung up across the bloc, from Hungary to the Netherlands to Finland, with parties such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France now commanding up to 24 per cent of the vote, according to some opinion polls. This year’s European elections are widely expected to replicate the pattern seen in recent national and local elections, which have seen a sharp swing away from mainstream parties towards extremist parties of the left and right. “Europe has a diverse set of tea parties,” says Hugo Brady, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform in London.

“We are likely to see strong showings in the European elections for eurosceptic or far-right parties in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland and Italy. We may see worrying forces coming to prominence in Romania and Bulgaria, where refugee numbers have started to rocket due to crises in Syria and elsewhere,”

Simultaneously, resistance to intra-European migration has emerged, particularly in Britain, where opposition to allowing Romanians and Bulgarians full working rights has become a mainstream political issue, despite Britain’s traditional support for EU enlargement.

For Bulgarian citizens, the irony is not lost that they are the targets of anti-immigration feeling at a time when many in their own country are fiercely resisting inward migration. “The feeling of Bulgarian people towards the EU is much like the feeling of refugees towards Bulgaria,” says Vassil Danov. “We are always hoping Europe will help to make life better, just as the refugees are hoping for a better life and better living conditions when they come to Europe.”

Three hundred miles south of Sofia, in Athens, similar debates are under way. Greece, embattled by the euro-zone crisis and suffering fiercely under the weight of austerity measures demanded by the troika of international lenders, assumed the presidency of the EU Council on January 1st. The government has put migration at the heart of its agenda, a task helped by the fact that neighbouring Italy will assume the rotating position in July.

Both countries feel aggrieved that states along the Mediterranean rim have had to shoulder the burden of immigration, an issue that came into renewed focus with the Lampedusa tragedy in October.

Unlike Bulgaria, Greece has had a longstanding migrant issue. In 2010 it was estimated that 90 per cent of all undocumented migrants entered the EU through Greece, either by sea or through its border with Turkey.

Two findings by the European Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights that exposed the reality of Greece’s asylum policy and reception conditions prompted some countries to exempt Greece temporarily from the “Dublin” regulation. This is an EU rule that obliges people to seek asylum in the country where they first lodged their application for asylum, in effect allowing countries to send migrants back to their country of entry.

While the EU has given extra funding to Greece to help the country deal with the issue, human-rights groups argue that Greece continues to breach its legal responsibilities asylum seekers. They argue that no substantive improvements have been noted at the detention centres since the European court rulings.

In August the Greek government extended the period for which asylum seekers can be detained from 12 to 18 months, sparking riots in some of the centres. The country has also enhanced patrols along the 200km border with Turkey, a policy that has pushed migrants into Bulgaria.

As in other parts of Europe, Greece has seen a rise in support for protest parties, most notably the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, which holds 18 seats in the Greek parliament. Opinion polls suggest that the party remains the country’s third most popular despite outcry about the murder of an anti-fascist rapper in September and the subsequent arrest of senior Golden Dawn figures.

The appearance of the British National Party chairman, Nick Griffin, at a Golden Dawn press conference in Athens last week sparked uncomfortable reminders of last year’s surprise alliance between Marine Le Pen’s National Front and the Dutch Party for Freedom, headed by Geert Wilders, who announced they would be campaigning side by side in the European elections.

The parties have brushed aside differences – Wilders’s party is strongly pro-Zionist, for example, whereas Le Pen’s father was charged with denying the Holocaust, despite his daughter’s more moderate credentials – pledging to campaign on a joint eurosceptic and anti-immigration platform.

The entry of parties such as Golden Dawn into mainstream politics has unsettled the political establishment. In October the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, warned against the rise of “nationalism and xenophobia” in next May’s elections. “We should not forget that in Europe, not so many decades ago, we had very, very worrying developments of xenophobia, racism and intolerance.”

Joseph Daul, the head of the European People’s Party, the group of centre-right parties in the European Parliament, told The Irish Times last month that the rise of fringe parties is a serious worry for the group as it approaches polling day. There is widespread fear that the sight of political extremists in national parliaments bestows legitimacy on ideas that were once dismissed as extreme.

But arguably the real impact of the rise of the far right is the effect it has on the policies of more moderate political parties. Faced with a drift of support towards anti-immigration parties, ruling parties as politically diverse as François Hollande’s Socialist party and David Cameron’s Conservative party have been forced to put migration at the top of the political agenda.

The parties of the far right – many of which, the UK Independence Party among them, have no seats in their national parliaments – have succeeded in moving their views from the fringe to the centre of public debate.

The EU, which is already experiencing its lowest ever levels of public support over the economic crisis, is likely to become the focal point for public opposition to immigration, even if it has limited control over the issue in reality. More money has been pledged for the EU’s border-control agency, Frontex, and member states have backed the idea of a common asylum system, but nations retain significant sovereignty over how they run their asylum procedures.

The EU leaders’ summit in June, which will be dedicated to the topic, might unveil new measures. One idea being considered is a plan to encourage people to apply for asylum before they leave their home country.

According to Daniel Esdras, director of the International Organisation for Migration in Athens, the focus of the EU should be to address the problems in the countries of origin. His organisation is helping tens of thousands of migrants who arrived in Greece to return home in a “safe and dignified” way. “Most of the migrants we support are homeless. The economic crisis meant there were no jobs for them in Greece.”

He believes the key to alleviating the crisis is to tackle the situation in migrants’ home countries. “If someone has a job, and can live and work in safety and dignity, they will never leave their country. But they will keep moving if they have no food, no safety. That is migration, a pattern that we have seen since the beginning of time.

“Most people do not want to leave their country. It is up to the EU to try and help make home countries more stable, more safe, to ensure that people have the right to live and work in dignity and safety.”

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