Syrian refugees: Bulgaria’s pressure point
26 September 2013
A few kilometres from the Tukish border lies Golyam Dervent, the first Bulgarian village encountered by many Syrian refugees who illegally enter the EU, a phenomenon which is steadily increasing. The local population looks kindly on them, but the authorities are overwhelmed and fear the influx could spark a humanitarian crisis.
Gina sits in front of a blue cabin which doubles as a shop and a pub. She sits on a chair, her chin rests on her hand and her legs are crossed. From here she can see the former city hall, a vestige of "times past" during communism, and part of her house composed of a brick facade, a white wooden door and a garden. She points these out. She has owned it for 20 years. She is not from here, but that's the way it is. She has a flat in the city but prefers to spend her winters here, where she can heat the house with wood.
She retired to Golyam Dervent, located 20km from Elhovo and 3km from the Turkish border. The name of the village means "the long march". It is the first place in Bulgaria reached by Syrian refugees during their long flight.
Gina is a kind of spokesperson for the residents of Golyam Dervent – who have nothing against the refugees because they do not stay long. She also speaks of the thousands of refugees that have passed through the village.
‘Police, police! Sofia, Sofia!’
"When they arrive at the spring, they say 'Police, police. Sofia, Sofia' and we wait with them," explains Gina. "They drink the water, but they never eat. Perhaps they are afraid of being poisoned. We stay with them, poor people, they are in flight. There was a man who came through in a wheel chair. They are nice. Once, it rained, so we let them into the shop," she says.
The village, which boasted 1,600 residents in the days of communism, now only has 50 left. Back then, the young people would trade wood with Turkey. Now there are no more young people and nobody goes to Turkey. A Russian visits now and again. Most of the houses are derelict and deserted.
Beyond the village, on the road that leads to the border, there is a former military barracks. The door is open. Vesselina Dimova, the mayor of the village, is inside. The Bulgarian and EU flags fly at the window. A calendar with the portrait of former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov is on a table near her desk along with a citation from the bible. She points out a sign that the border police forced her to post: "Close the door when entering or exiting". She laughs when it is photographed, calls it "my little signpost". She smiles as she looks through the hole in the fence.
"They come through there. If someone sees them, they call for the police. If the police don't find them it's because they are too busy looking for them elsewhere. Twelve people came the other day, two families with small children," she says.
According to Dimova, "they are not dangerous, they cause no problems. We give them food and water" and the people of the village help them. When they leave, we catch a glimpse of a border police car through our windows.
Echoing the words of the Minister of the Interior and other national authorities, she uses the term "wave" to describe the flow of refugees. According to the police, nearly 4,500 people have come through the village. They are running out of places to put them.
The refugees' path
Most of the refugees arrive in Golyam Dervent in the morning. They must wait there for the arrival of the border police who take them into detention in Elhovo. They are then registered in a ledger, subjected to a medical examination and relocated to a temporary centre. Two of these centres, Pastrogor and Lyubimets are close-by. One of the centres is run by the National Agency for Refugees the other by the Office of Migration. The centres are different – one is open and the other is closed.
Nearly all of the Syrian refugees have identity papers. That simplifies the task of the authorities. Some, however, do not. According to the police, they may have been forced to give them to those who smuggled them over the border and will have to buy them back or else they have lost them.
Until recently, the preferred point of passage was the village of Kapitan Andreevo. But, since it was equipped with an integrated surveillance system that monitors even the Turkish side, the refugees can no longer reach the border. They are stopped by Turkish authorities. Now they prefer to come through Elhovo which is in the middle of a forest.
‘We are happy to see strangers’
Gina goes into her blue cabin. She asks, for the third time, if we want to buy something. "We are happy to see strangers," she says. The border police car was parked in front of the shop a few minutes ago. The officers cannot speak without official authorisation. But off the record, they say there are no problems. Nothing worth complaining about. They ask if we know about the new coordination centre in Elhovo. The opening was announced on September 17 by the Interior Minister. They smile when told the work will take 10 days.
Gina leans against the door of the shop. We wish her good luck. She smiles. She wants to say something. "I hope for it," she says, "but it's unlikely". As our car pulls away, we see her sit back in her chair and rest her chin on her hand.