Bos/Hrv/SrpRomânăБългарскиShqipМакедонски 25 Jan 17

Patrolling with Impunity in Eastern Europe

Publicity-hungry migrant hunters are a symptom of bigger problems in Eastern Europe.

Aleksandrina Ginkova Plovdiv, Varna, Asotthalom
Volunteers patrolling Bulgaria's border area with Turkey. Photo: BIRN

The off-duty border guard was thin, tired and visibly nervous. He described his day, almost every day, on Bulgaria’s frontier with Turkey.

“Twelve-hour shifts, constantly moving. If you have to patrol, you cover 15, 20 kilometres.”

“They’re constantly changing routes. We catch them, we stop them; they move, we move. It’s a game of cat and mouse.”

‘They’ are the migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa slipping daily across the frontier from Turkey into Bulgaria and Greece en route to Western Europe, a flow that peaked in the summer of 2015 but continues today, tapping a deep vein of intolerance across the continent.

In Bulgaria, like Hungary, vigilante groups have emerged, posting pictures on Facebook of tattooed men in T-shirts or military fatigues roaming the forests on the border. They are sometimes armed.

They have grabbed headlines in Bulgaria and abroad, winning alternately the acclaim and admonishment of the Bulgarian government. In Hungary, they have been recruited by a right-wing government that in September last year issued an official call for 3,000 “border hunters” to reinforce police and soldiers on Hungary’s southern border with Serbia.

In Bulgaria, some have been unmasked as petty criminals, others have become minor media celebrities. But no one knows for sure how effective they have been, how many they really number and who is funding them, if anyone. Some groups claim to have tens of thousands in their ranks, but can muster barely a few dozen in public.

The border officer, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity, was in little doubt:

“They’re just messing around… pretending to be heroes,” he said. “They caught 30 men. I probably caught 3,000 and nobody said anything about me. What’s so important about catching 30 men? Probably the thrill … I don’t know. It’s pointless.”

Whether publicity-hungry posers or a serious threat to security and human rights, observers agree that the self-styled ‘migrant hunters’ are a symptom of a deeper issue afflicting Bulgaria, where hate speech and hate crimes are increasingly condoned and the ‘other’ is unwelcome.

Ivanka Ivanova, a law expert at the Open Society Institute in Sofia, said she was “not sure there is such a thing as a ‘rise of the civic patrols’ on the border”.

But what is clear, she said, is that the state’s reluctance to act against those that do exist, and in some cases its readiness to encourage them, is leading to a climate of impunity.

“One in every seven people in Bulgaria has heard comments from politicians and journalists that left him under the impression that crime against certain minority groups is not as reproachable as it would be if the crime was against someone from the majority,” Ivanova told BIRN.

“With these public sentiments it is clear that the saturation of the public discourse with hate speech inevitably leads to the perpetration of hate crimes.”

Medal

Bulgaria’s ‘migrant hunters’ burst onto the scene in early 2016 with two men – Dinko Valev and Petar Nizamov.

Valev, a tattooed trader in bus parts, was shown on Bulgarian television patrolling the border on a quad bike; Nizamov posted a video of the detention of three Afghan migrants online, their hands tied behind their backs.

Bulgaria’s then prime minister, Boyko Borisov, had initially welcomed the “help” of some vigilante groups, and one group was presented with a medal by the head of the border police, Antonio Angelov, for catching a group of migrants and handing them over to police.

But when rights groups and the international media pounced on the Nizamov video, Borisov spoke out against such “paramilitary formations” and the harm they did to Bulgaria’s reputation. Nizamov is the only person, however, to have been charged so far – with the illegal detention of the three migrants – while Valev was placed under investigation in November 2016 on suspicion of inciting discrimination, violence and hatred on the basis of nationality or ethnicity.

Nizamov’s lawyer has called the case against him “fabricated”. Nizamov himself told BIRN he believed the courts were under pressure to keep him in custody: “I am sure there was an order from above,” he said. Valev has also denied any wrongdoing, saying on Bulgarian Nova TV in November that he was ready to go to prison “for Bulgaria”.

According to an opinion poll published in March 2016, just over half of Bulgarians approve of civilians detaining migrants.

Self-proclaimed ‘migrant hunter’ Petar Nizamov at his home in the coastal city of Burgas. Photo: Aleksandrina Ginkova.

For the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, BIRN spent time with members of the Committee for National Rescue, comprising a civic wing called Shipka and a “military unit” called Vasil Levski, names that recall Bulgaria’s fight to throw off almost 500 years of Ottoman Turkish rule from the late 14th Century. The two wings are registered separately as non-governmental organisations.

The group boasts a level of organisation neither Valev nor Nizamov could muster. One of its founders, Vladimir Rusev, has claimed the organisation has 26,000 members.

In an interview with BIRN in a rooftop café in his hometown of Varna on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, Rusev said he funded the organisation through a business he owns with his wife, which he said was involved in private security in war zones for politicians and “the super-rich”. Members also chipped in to pay for fuel and supplies for patrols.

Two companies – Due Diligence BG and Due Diligence International – are registered to Rusev and a woman called Antonia Ivanova Stefanova in the Bulgarian Trade Register.

Both are registered at the same address as the NGOs Shipka and Vasil Levski in Varna’s old city centre. BIRN could not find websites for either company. Rusev, 57, said he had previously been in the army but declined to elaborate further on his business activities.

“This is spreading xenophobia and incitement to violence”

– Daniel Stefanov, spokesman for the UNHCR in Bulgaria

Bald and stocky with a tightly trimmed moustache, Rusev drove to the interview in a dark SUV with tinted windows, and was greeted by other guests as he entered the cafe.

The Committee for National Rescue has affiliations with far-right groups and political parties in Eastern Europe under the umbrella organisation Fortress Europe. In May 2016, it sent a delegation to the Czech Republic at the invitation of the far-right Usvit (Dawn) party.

In June, it was joined on a patrol by a former leader of the German anti-Muslim Pegida party, Tatjana Festerling, and its Dutch offshoot, Edwin Wagensveld. Rusev denied receiving money from Russia to stir up trouble in Bulgaria and by extension the European Union.

“They are mad because we are volunteers and do everything for free,” he said of the group’s critics. “They should leave us to do our job, to help the state do what it doesn’t want to do to save the people.”

The group wrote to the border police chief Angelov on July 25, 2016 offering its services to help stop the “invasion”, but Rusev said they had not received a reply. A border police spokeswoman said that any such cooperation would have to be regulated by the law, i.e. by the government.

‘More for public effect’

BIRN asked the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, whether it believed the migrant hunters were more active on social media than on the border.

Daniel Stefanov, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Bulgaria, replied: “In the main, they are aiming more for public effect.”

“This is spreading xenophobia and incitement to violence,” he said. “And it is for sure especially dangerous if the authorities do not react. In this sense, there is no big difference if it is propaganda or real actions because they are both harming society.”

Even a member of Rusev’s Committee for National Rescue conceded the group’s activities on the ground were having little effect on actual migrant flows but were aimed more at getting to know the terrain and sending a message to the migrants and those aiding them.

“In fact, we are not decreasing the refugee wave significantly, the effect is around zero,” said Maria Gerina, who coordinates the social activities of the group.

But like Stefanov, Bulgarian security expert Yordan Bozhilov, president of the Sofia Security Forum and an analyst at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, warned of the influence of such vigilante groups and their rhetoric on Bulgarian society.

“We have witnessed an Islamic radicalism, but there is also anti-Islamic radicalism that is in no way less dangerous,” he said.

Research conducted by the Open Society Institute between 2014 and 2016 and published in Bulgarian in July last year showed an increase in the number of Bulgarians who have been exposed to hate speech and an increase in the approval of its use, though the majority continues to disapprove.

“What is worrying is the public approval for using hate speech, that is extreme nationalism and hate speech, against two social groups – Roma and foreigners,” said the Institute’s law expert Ivanova.

“Why this is happening is the million-dollar question and our research cannot give a categorical answer.”

Ivanova said she personally saw two factors; firstly, the absence of a reaction from the authorities, which she said “systematically” fail to investigate hate crimes and hate speech, and secondly the cultivation of “fear and prejudice” by the Bulgarian media.

“A significant proportion of the people, almost a third in 2016, do not know that hate speech … and hate crime are criminalised. The proportion is even higher among people with lower education. And the trend is negative – in 2014 only one in five did not know that these acts are crimes.”

Another study, conducted jointly by the NGOs Media Democracy and the Centre for Political Modernisation, published in Bulgarian in March 2016, exposed an upsurge in hate speech in the Bulgarian media, mainly targeting the Roma minority, refugees and migrants.

Based on the statements, articles and content of their website and social media accounts, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee rights group submitted a request to the state prosecution in May for Rusev’s Shipka and Vasil Levski groups to lose their status as non-governmental organisations. On Jan. 9, the prosecution rejected the request, a prosecution spokesperson told BIRN.

Vladimir Rusev, one of the founders of the Committee for National Rescue, which patrols for migrants on the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Photo: Aleksandrina Ginkova.

Radoslav Stoyanov of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee said former Prime Minister Borisov, who resigned in November last year after the government-backed candidate in Bulgaria’s presidential election lost, had “publicly legitimised” such organisations.

In their inaction, he said, the authorities and political parties “passively assist the powers that aim to drive the society towards rejection and oppression of marginalised communities. This silent agreement, in my opinion, is the reason these sentiments develop and grow in this society.”

BIRN asked a government spokeswoman if the government had an official position on the vigilantes.

“No, it doesn’t,” she replied. “What do you expect it to be? How do you imagine such an official position?”

“The position that has been expressed by representatives of the government on different occasions … is that the state has ways to defend the border and they are defined by the constitution and the law.”

Arguably, the vigilantes have taken their cue from the Bulgarian police, who have been accused by rights groups of widespread mistreatment of migrants.

In August last year, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein expressed concern over the practice of pushing migrants back over the border and “persistent allegations of physical abuse and theft by law enforcement officials at the border”. Attacks against migrants and refugees, he said, were rarely, if ever, punished.

“[It is] particularly disturbing to see important and influential public figures expressing support for illegal armed vigilante groups who have been brazenly hunting down migrants along parts of the border between Bulgaria and Turkey,” Zeid said.

BIRN wrote separately to the spokespeople of the government and the interior ministry asking for a response to the criticism of the authorities’ stance on the vigilantes, accusations that they tolerate hate speech and allegation of police brutality, but received no reply.

“We are approaching the limits of being a civilised society”

– Hungarian rights activist Mark Kekesi

Private army

Some 1.3 million people fleeing war, poverty and repression reached the EU’s southern shores last year, most of them crossing the sea from Turkey to Greece by boat and dinghy, heading north into Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and beyond en route to Germany and other more affluent members of the bloc.

The EU has since tried to shut down the so-called Balkan route, but the migrants continue to come albeit in fewer numbers. Only a small fraction of the 2015 total – 30,000 – went through Bulgaria. More than 18,000 had been detained in 2016 in Bulgaria by the end of November.

Migrant centres in Bulgaria last year were full. On November 10, there were 7,039 migrants housed in camps with capacity for 6,390, though the figures dipped slightly in January. The majority wishes to move on, but for those who do not succeed, integration is not easy. “Bulgaria still does not have an integration programme,” said the UNHCR’s Stefanov. “So for the moment the process is stalled and it is not clear if and how it is going to continue.” 

In late November last year, police fired water cannon at hundreds of rioting migrants at the largest refugee reception centre in Harmanli, southeastern Bulgaria.

The unprecedented migration and the strain it has put on state resources has emboldened right-wing groups and parties in Central and Eastern Europe, even in countries such as Slovakia where very few migrants have entered.

In Hungary, a major transit country, the nationalist mayor of the border village of Asotthalom, Laszlo Toroczkai, in 2015 set up his own patrol force and posted a movie-style video on Facebook and YouTube – with patrolmen in speeding cars and on horseback – warning migrants against trying to cross from Serbia into Hungary.

In Hungary, such patrols have been legalised with set 24-hour shifts and designated days off. Like Bulgaria’s vigilantes, Hungary’s patrolmen are deeply anti-Islamic, critical of ‘weak’ leaders in Western Europe and steeped in conspiracy theories about grand plans for Muslims to conquer ‘Christian Europe’.

“This migrant issue is organised by certain interest groups,” said patrolman Nagy Sandor when BIRN joined a patrol on the Hungarian-Serbian border. “Now it’s people from the Middle East, tomorrow the African avalanche will begin and that will be the end of us.”

BIRN witnessed the patrol, involving Toroczkai’s deputy, stop three male migrants who said they were from Pakistan. One gave his age as 14. They said they had lost their identification documents, angering the patrolmen. The police arrived and took over, leading the migrants away.

Mark Kekesi, a Hungarian activist with the civil rights group Migszol which advocates for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, said the patrols amounted to Toroczkai’s own “private army”.

“We are approaching the limits of being a civilised society,” he said.

The Hungarian police in September last year put out a call for 3,000 “border hunters”, saying they would be given six months’ training and equipped like other police officers with live ammunition, pepper spray, batons and handcuffs.

Members of a Hungarian civic border patrol, set by a local mayor on the border with Serbia at the height of the migrant crisis in 2015. Photo: Aleksandrina Ginkova.

Bulgaria’s interior ministry has already tried to reach out to people living in the border regions for their informal support, by alerting police if they see any migrants.

Bozhilov, the Bulgarian security expert, said the law provided for the government to do something similar to Hungary by organising volunteer patrols. He said this might help “channel” the frustration and aggression of vigilante groups.

An interior ministry spokeswoman told BIRN: “Our position towards the local people is that we accept cooperation in the form of warnings (about migrants entering Bulgaria). Actions that can be taken officially in such cases are the jurisdiction of the border police.”

Recruitment

In May last year, Rusev of the Committee for National Rescue addressed an outreach event in Bulgaria’s second city of Plovdiv, sharing the floor of the gaudy Maritsa Hotel with three other militia leaders who were dressed in military fatigues. Only a few dozen people, overwhelmingly men, had turned out to see them.

The hotel takes its name from the river that runs east from Bulgaria’s Rila Mountains, briefly hugging the country’s border with Greece before carving a path between Greece and Turkey on its way to the Aegean Sea.

The river is just one of the obstacles many migrants face on their way to Western Europe.

After two hours, the audience filed out and one of the men in military fatigues paid 180 Bulgarian lev (90 euros) in cash for the use of the conference room.

Twenty-six-year-old Momchil Krumov, one of those in the audience, stepped outside, a strong wind gusting off the river. He planned to sign up.

“With this enormous wave of refugees and when the state cannot take care of itself, there comes a moment when the population has no guarantees, no security that the state will defend itself as it should,” he told BIRN later by phone, having joined the group.

“For better or worse, I guess for better, the population starts to organise itself. It is a natural process.”

Aleksandrina Ginkova writes about international affairs for the Bulgarian news website Dnevnik.bg. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

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