A series of videos surreptitiously filmed from the window of a refugee centre in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia last month shows a standoff between police and dozens of African migrants, who had been kicked out of the centre for staying there without permission. The men chant “racists, racists” at the police before being taken into custody. The scene captures how tensions are now regularly boiling over in a country grappling with a surge in asylum seekers.
These videos were filmed on January 16 at Ovcha Kupel, the largest refugee centre in Sofia. It is home to approximately 800 asylum seekers, according to figures from the State Agency for Refugees. According to the local press, more than 70 people were forcefully evicted from the centre that day.
This video shows a group of African migrants chanting in protest outside the refugee centre. Later, police can be seen detaining some of the men.
The men chanting, from a closer angle.
From 2011 to 2013, asylum requests have multiplied by eight-fold in Bulgaria, with over 7,000 people filing requests in the last year, according to the State Agency for Refugees. About 3,800 of them are accommodated in Bulgaria’s refugee centres; more than three-quarters of these are Syrian nationals. Another 3,700 registered asylum seekers are not accommodated at the centres. The registration process can take months, so there are also an untold number of migrants living in Bulgaria who are not accounted for in these numbers.
In the past few years, immigration both from Syria and from African countries has soared. Many are from regions that have been wracked by conflict, notably the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali. Diana Daskalova, the founder of the Centre for Legal Aid, a nonprofit that helps migrants with legal issues in Bulgaria, says that about 80 percent of those who come to seek their advice are from African countries: “They have a lot more problems navigating the asylum-seeking process than Syrians, for whom it is more streamlined, and who have an easier time obtaining asylum status.” She says that in the past year, out of all the cases of Africans her organisation has worked on, only one person was granted asylum: “And it was a special case – she was a woman with serious health problems, which was a decisive factor.”
“I have nowhere else to go, and it’s too cold to sleep outside”
Louis (not his real name) is from Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which he fled after his father was killed and the rest of his family disappeared. He was caught crossing the border into Bulgaria in the fall; he was trying to get to Belgium to join friends there. He spent two months in a detention centre before being released with an authorisation letter that allows him to circulate in Sofia while he waits to be registered as an asylum seeker.
I sleep at the refugee centre illegally. I was there when the police came for an early-morning raid last month [as shown in the video above], but managed to hide. They come every month or so, and throw out anyone who isn’t allowed to stay there. They seem to target blacks in particular, which is why the men who were kicked out rebelled and chanted ‘racists, racists’ at the police. [Editor’s Note: The majority of the people currently living at the refugee centre are Syrians; there are also people from other countries in the Middle East and Africa]. They were arrested, and I don’t know what’s become of them. [Editor’s Note: The Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees has not yet responded to requests for comment regarding the raid. When we receive a reply, we will publish it here.]My African friends who are allowed to stay at the centre let me and some others stay with them in their rooms at night, on the floor. I have nowhere else to go, and it’s too cold to sleep outside. When the guards come for checks in the evening, I hide under a bed or in the showers. Most of the time, they don’t look there. But sometimes they do, and they turn those that they catch over to the police. I’m lucky – I’ve never been caught yet.“It’s safer in the centre. People in the street call us ‘apes’”I try to spend as much time as possible with my friends inside the refugee centre. It’s a tough place – it’s overcrowded and dirty – but outside, it’s dangerous. Most Bulgarians don’t like us, and they often spit on us. I don’t know how to speak Bulgarian, but I know the word for “ape” because I’ve heard people in the street say it to me a lot. Some of my friends have gotten beaten up. We don’t understand why there’s so much hate. [Local media have reported several xenophobic attacks in the last few months, including a case in which a Malian teenager was beaten up and another that left a Bulgarian man of Turkish origin in a coma. Far-right groups, which are on the rise in Bulgaria, have organised several anti-immigrant protests over the past year.]I have an appointment with the state refugee agency coming up in a few weeks – they told me they will take my fingerprints and I can then start the process of asking for asylum. [Until asylum seekers are officially registered, they don’t have access to housing or health care. The wait to get registered, according to Daskalova, can last for months, sometimes even a year]. But I don’t have much hope. Since I arrived here, no Africans I know of have been granted asylum. They’ll probably try to deport me, but I can’t go back home, so I’ll have to try to gather enough money to get into another European country.
Lately, protests at Bulgarian refugee centres have become frequent, both over dire living conditions and the slow pace of the asylum process. In November, Bulgarian police quelled a protest by Algerian migrants at a centre in the town of Lyubimets. That same month, Syrian refugees threatened to go on a hunger strike at a centre in Harmanli, in south-eastern Bulgaria.
The United Nation’s refugee agency recently urged European countries to hold off on returning any asylum seekers to Bulgaria – which they have the right to do if it is the first country they entered in the European Union – citing problems with registration delays as well as access to food and health care.