Machete-armed militia ‘hunt for migrants’ in Bulgaria
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A far-right Bulgarian militia armed with machetes has been stalking the country's border with Turkey, provoking fear in migrants, and attempting to chase out those trying to reach Europe. The group uses social media to post videos of its patrols and any migrants unlucky enough to have been caught by them. Our Observer accuses local authorities of turning a blind eye to what should be considered an illegal activity.
This official video, which was published by the group on October 22, shows its members seeking to emulate the military. The men wear military fatigues while carrying out military drills, standing at attention and marching in formation. Other images show militiamen- some wearing balaclavas and carrying machetes- marching through fields and a forest, then crawling along the ground and shooting at targets.
The video also uses language common to far-right activists. During the video, the group accuses migrants of being 'invaders', 'vandals' and 'rapists', and calls on viewers to join its 'army of volunteers'.
Another video, uploaded on September 4, shows armed militiamen forcing a group of migrants to walk in single file. They're marched into a clearing, where another group of migrants are already sitting on the ground. The video doesn't show what happens next.
Similar videos are posted on a weekly basis by the militia, which is itself composed of two groups: the 'Vasil Levski Military Union'; and the 'Shipka Bulgarian National Movement'. Both share the same website and Facebook page.
When contacted by France 24, Vladimir Rusev, the commander-in-chief of Vasil Levski Military Union, defended the militia:
These groups were created in 2014. The first group [Vasil Levski Military Union] is made up of police and army veterans, whilst the second [Shipka Bulgarian National Movement] brings together scientists, university academics and even ordinary workers. Altogether, there are 40,000 volunteers working together to defend the sovereignty, independence and security of the country [Editor's note: France 24 is unable to independently verify this figure].
"They're mainly doing it to steal from the migrants, because many of them carry lots of money"Svetoslav Traykov lives in Varna, a city in eastern Bulgaria that's also home to the militia's headquarters. He spent three years working for the city's local government, where he oversaw the integration of minority groups.
At the start of the year, a petty criminal called Dinko Valev posted a video showing around 30 people lying on the ground after having been captured near the Turkish border. The video went viral, encouraging other people to try and capture migrants themselves and then boast about it online. That's how the 'hunt for migrants' got going [Editor's note: Vasil Levski Military Union - Shipka Bulgarian National Movement is nevertheless the biggest group of its type].
"Members of the militia are sending migrants back to Turkey illegally"
These militias carry out patrols near the border and, when they catch migrants, they send them back to Turkey. It's illegal, because anyone who reaches the European Union - either legally or illegally - has the right to make an asylum request. That right can be found in article 27 of the Geneva Convention that's enshrined in the Bulgarian constitution. As you can imagine, the militias treat the migrants with zero respect.
Officially, they say they're stopping the migrants to 'protect the Bulgarian people', but friends of mine who work for the border police have told me that they're mainly doing it to steal. Some migrants carry lots of money on them.
Our Observer isn't alone in speaking out against this militia. Last June, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, an NGO, asked the public prosecutor's office to ban the group. It accused the militia of being anti-constitutional and dangerous. Vladimir Rusev, the commander-in-chief of Vasil Levski Military Union, said his militia isn't doing anything wrong.
When we find migrants, we tell them that they have committed a crime by crossing the border illegally. We ask them to go back to Turkey to avoid criminal prosecution and to go immediately to the nearest official border posts. We take those who refuse to return to Turkey to the border police, but that's all.
Vladimir Rusev says he's happy to defend his fellow Bulgarians against what he calls the 'huge threat' of illegal migrants:
Apart from the Syrians, most of them are either fighters from the Islamic State group or radical Islamists [...] Violence, theft, murder, rape, terrorism: that's all they bring with them. Their aim is to destroy our social system.
"The government hasn't really spoken out against the militia"Svetoslav Traykov says part of the blame rests with the Bulgarian government.
The problem is that the government has never really condemned what the militias are doing [Editor's note: The government has even encouraged them on several occasions].
What's more, these militias also have the support of a handful of nationalist parties. The headquarters of Vasil Levski Military Union - Shipka Bulgarian National Movement is in the same building that houses the far right politcal party, the VMRO - Bulgarian National Movement.
Bulgarian media has also encouraged them, by calling some militiamen 'heroes'. Unfortunately, this kind of nationalistic propaganda has a strong influence on the population.
For its part, the Bulgarian government has only spoken out against the militia's actions once, when it published a video last April showing three migrants laying on their stomachs with their hands tied. The government called on people to stop taking justice into their own hands. Despite that, the militias haven't been deterred from continuing their patrols.
Over the last few months, Bulgarian authorities have erected a barbed-wire fence along the country's border with Turkey. Border police and soldiers have also been dispatched to the border. According to Amnesty International, these national security forces have also stopped migrants crossing into Bulgaria, denying them the right to make an asylum claim.