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Feature 02 Sep 16

Battle in Refugee Camp Leaves Bulgarian Town Nervous

Bulgaria’s biggest refugee camp has brought benefits for locals in Harmanli – but divisions are growing between refugees and locals since a recent fight in the camp.

Mariya Cheresheva
Refugees in Harmanli. Photo: Ivan Atanasov/Sakarnews.info

The cafés in the main street of the small southeastern Bulgarian town of Harmanli, usually full of locals and their foreign guests, were almost deserted on a late August morning.

Bulgarians and refugees, who had learned to live together over the past three years, had gathered into small groups, clearly divided.

Regardless of their divisions, they were talking about the same thing: the massive fight between over 500 people of different nationalities inside the refugee centre on August 28.

The unprecedented battle, which has shocked locals and created insecurity inside the camp, has also revived ethnic tensions in the town where, after an initial wave of protests when the camp first opened, people had learned to live together.

The locals had come to see economic benefits from the newcomers as well, as the camp offers employment opportunities that they badly need.

Following the brawl in Harmanli, the government decided to allow the State Agency for the Refugees to set up refugee camps of a closed kind, or transform existing open camps into closed facilities if they assess that it is necessary.

The decision has drawn criticism from human rights activists, who argue that existing Bulgarian laws should simply be applied to individuals that break them.

Harmanli, the largest refugee camp in Bulgaria, hosts around 1,500 asylum seekers mainly from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Pakistan.

While the camp held just over 150 asylum seekers only few weeks ago, the number of refugees stuck in Bulgarian refugee camps has steadily grown since Serbia tightened controls over its border with Bulgaria in July, sending army units to join border patrols.

Tensions rise after years of peace

“I am really scared. I think all those young men [most camp inmates are Afghans aged 18 to 30] should not be allowed out of the camp - and police controls should increased,” Tonka, a Harmanli local who had come to protest in front of the camp on August 29, told BIRN.

Nikolay Georgiev, chairman of the nationalist VMRO party in Harmanli, says the whole centre should be transformed into a closed facility.

“Our town has totally changed since the number of refugees started increasing,” he said, adding that his party planned another protest against the refugee camp on September 4.

Many residents of Harmanli have said they intend to join the rally, which would be the first one in two years.

Most of the refugees living in the facility, which is located in a former army compound, are also worried about the incident.

“If the clashes continue, our lives here will be in danger. We came here to escape war because we want peace. This is not what we are looking for,” Najid, aged 21, from Afghanistan, told BIRN.

When the camp in Harmanli, a town of around 15,000 people, first opened during the peak of the refugee crisis in Bulgaria in the autumn of 2013, locals did not provide a warm welcome.

In 2014, a series of protests against the refugee camp, led by locals and activists from various political parties, took place.

But later the situation calmed down, as the number of refugees steadily decreased, and because the camp created unexpected job opportunities.

“Around 130 people work in the camp on different programs and in different positions.  This is an advantage because Harmanli is a small town and does not have so many factories and production companies where people can work,” Yordan Malinov, director of the camp, told BIRN.

He explained that most of the people who started working in the camp back in 2014 had been unemployed before then.

Malinov said the refugee camp had also helped local traders, as the asylum seekers are free to move around and shop and visit the cafés in Harmanli.

Some of the refugees who received asylum in Bulgaria have chosen to stay in Harmanli, opening fast-food restaurants, shops and internet cafés and working in factories.

“The refugees who like Bulgaria always remain here, especially because of the calmness of the small town,” Malinov said.

Bassel Al-Gafari, who escaped Syria and came to Bulgaria in 2013, is one of them. He now owns a restaurant at the bus station – an established hot spot for refugees from the camp.

“I decided to start a fast-food restaurant because of the camp. I had my clients ready, I didn’t have to look for them”, he told BIRN, adding that about half of his customers are Bulgarians.

“I have family here, two brothers, and they backed me up at the start. That is why I came to Bulgaria. I will remain here for now. It is calm and people are nice. For the future, I do not know,” he said.

The state answers with tough measures

Following the latest tensions, the government agreed on August 31 to allow the State Agency for the Refugees to set up closed camps or transform open camps into closed facilities.

Asylum seekers sent to closed camps will be those with unclear identity and nationality or who have violated public order.

“Accommodation … in closed centers is a limitation on freedom of movement and will be applied only when necessary and when the needed legal guarantees have been provided,” the government has insisted.

The idea of locking up refugees is not new – and follows the adoption of changes to the Law on the Asylum and Refugees in October 2015, but needed a green light from the government.

Until now, only migrants who had not sought asylum in Bulgaria, or foreigners who have been suspected of posing threats to national security could be placed in closed detention centres, run by the Ministry of Interior.

The legal changes also allow limiting the free movement of asylum seekers in the neighbourhoods or towns where they have been registered.

Experts and human rights lawyers have opposed the measure as restrictive and say they violate the rights of asylum seekers.

In January 2015, when the legal changes were still being debated, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, warned the legal commission of parliament that detaining asylum seekers would have “long-term negative effects on them” and would cause them “unnecessary suffering with serious consequences for their health and well-being”.

Lydia Staykova, a volunteer from the civil humanitarian initiative “Friends of the Refugees,” recalled the first five months after the camp in Harmanli was established, when it operated as a closed facility.

“It was difficult for people to buy medicines, they had to ask for a permission. I remember one lady who had asthma but was not allowed out of the camp”, she told BIRN.

“I think somebody who violates public order should be subject to already existing laws, and there are prisons and police detention where anyone breaking the laws can be detained. If there are not enough of these, the authorities should build new ones, not turn the refugee camps into prisons,” Staykova added.

The new measures would not make Bulgarian towns and cities safer, or stop the smugglers, she wrote on Facebook.

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