An interview with Mira and Ivo from “Antifascist Action – Sofia”, Bulgaria
What group are you from? And what is your group doing?
I: We are a part of the situation for migrants in Bulgaria a small group called “Antifascist action – Sofia” which exists now for one year. It is not only focused on migrants, but the migration topic is related to nazism, racism and xenophobia. I was part of some other groups before that was focused on migrants but there were very few people there. In 2011, I was part of the No-Border team in Bulgaria. There weren’t many migrants at that time but we wanted to stress to society that migration is not a problem but something that will happen for sure in the next years.*
М: It is important to mention that in Bulgaria there is not a single group that is in solidarity with migrant struggles in a political and radical way. There exists a network for refugee support called “Friends of Refugees” but this network is mostly for individual cases for humanitarian help. I think this is one of the greatest problems we face right now in Bulgaria: the lack of these kind of structures. As for our group, both of us are also members of social centre Adelante which was an autonomous social centre in Sofia and now is a collective in search for a new place.
I: We organized the demonstration against the fascist Lukov March and some smaller actions in reaction to the fact of that people were beaten at the border, and some of them died after that. We want to make cases like this more public but we are doing this together with other people who are sympathizing with the migrants. But the main thing is that we don’t have too many good contacts to migrants and because we don’t have a social centre now, it is also harder to connect with people.
Could you tell us a about the situation for migrants in Bulgaria?
I: In 2012 people started to come from Syria but also from Maghreb countries and from Sub-Saharan African countries. In 2013 there were big numbers of migrants here, it became very visible and the main topic of the media, but in a negative way. Of course this was related to the war in Syria, but not only. Media mentioned only Syrians, but in the past there were many other groups, e.g. from Iran, Afghanistan or Iraq. Before 2013 Bulgaria was not a big destination, 2013/14 there were bigger numbers of people coming, and now 2015, after the brutal reaction of the state, the numbers of registered refugees stayed almost the same whereas in other European countries the numbers increased a lot.
M: The Bulgarian police is using different tactics that are brutal and violating human rights. They manage to scare people away from the Bulgarian border and make them choose the way to Greece by the sea which is a lot more dangerous. In the media we only hear that “we’re proud to have restricted the migrant flow through Bulgaria” and we’re “doing a good job”. But because of this “good job” people are dying in the sea and choosing dangerous routes through the mountains. In their networks the refugees spread the news: „Don’t pass through Bulgaria“. The intentions of the Bulgarian state were accomplished, using brutal force. The reports from bordermonitoring organizations that accounted for numerous push-backs, were not acknowledged and the facts were denied by the government.
I: It was in March 2015 when a group Yazidi people were beaten very brutally by Bulgarian police and afterwards pushed back. Two of them died later in the Turkish hospital from freezing and injuries. This was proved but yet again was not admitted by anybody from Bulgarian authorities. It was met with silence.
М: Even in October 2015 when an Afghani person was shot dead by the border police, too many people defended the actions of the police. The media didn’t speak in terms of a person being killed, but in terms of an “accident” were an “illegal immigrant” was shot.
I: Actually the situation now is awful, if we speak about the state policy – of course it is the policy of European Union, but in some ways it is even more brutal than in other countries. There is a very strong police brutality, especially at the south eastern border with Turkey from where migrants are coming. There are thousands and all kinds of police right now there, not only border police. They are doing brutal push-backs to Turkey, beatings, even killings. Аnd actually the biggest problem, for me, is that this is not visible. It is hidden from society and the media coverage is only about the numbers of migrants arriving and its representation as a threat. They continue to speak about the „migrant crisis“ and „invasion“, like everywhere in Europe. The number is less because of the brutal push-backs and border controls, but also because of the fact, that many migrants try to escape and don’t stay here, because there is barely no future here for them. It’s a very small number of people who really seek asylum here, most of those only do it to go out of detention centers and to have a status.
The current situation inside the country is this: most of the open camps are almost empty, less people are applying for status. In Bulgaria people are not allowed to work until the asylum granting. They used to receive a very small amount of money each month. But it was miserable and not possible to cover anything. Recently they stopped even this. After the reports of Bordermonitoring Bulgaria and other organizations there were intentions expressed (e.g. from Germany) to stop deportations back to Bulgaria under the Dublin Convention and many deportations were stopped, but the convention is still in operation.
М: Most of the people who live outside of the camps are under big threat from the local neonazis, but not only: they are exposed to any kind of attacks. The police is not protecting them and is targeting people on racist grounds to check their documents and terrorize them. The national security agency is doing massive operations, arresting many migrants with big publicity. Many people live on the streets, and because they are not allowed to work, some of them are dragged into the criminal circles. The attitude of the general society is very negative and there is terrible discrimination.
I: Besides the nationalist circles, there are also those who perceive themselves as more open but mostly speak about the Syrians, or sometimes Iraqi. For them only these people have the right to come, because they are fleeing war, the others are criminals. So it is nearly impossible for other nationalities like Northern Africans to get any status or recognition. Only marriages with Bulgarian citizens can help them. Most of them have to stay in detention centers or are deported back. In Bulgarian laws some countries are considered safe, e.g. like Mali. This is the politics that has its reflection in the media: The big division between refugees and so-called ‚illegal‘ immigrants.
М: However, the basic thing is that we lack the concrete information about what is happening at the border. In other places the activists have more information and updates about what is happening, how many people are passing, where they are crossing. It is very hard due not only state policies but also to our lack of an activist structure to get in touch with migrants around the border regions and to know what kind of support they need.
You already told us a bit about your perspective on the current politics of Bulgaria and the European Union concerning migration. But what do you think about the general EU-politics on migration?
I: I think that, if you want to blame someone, it would be of course each country by themselves, but also the whole European union – because I think that all these policies are a product of EU policies: they don’t want more migrants in the European Union territory. They are giving a lot of money to Bulgaria not to make better places for reception of migrants: they give a lot of money for police, to increase police presence as much as possible. And even if officially they are saying they do not not want any brutal policing I think they just close their eyes for many many cases and they are even happy with the policies of a country like Bulgaria. And it is not just now; I remember when Bulgaria was not a member state of the EU, it was the same with Greece. They were closing their eyes on many things: the conditions of the detention centers in Greece. Like officially they would say Greece is violating human rights but unofficially they were okay with that. Now they are doing the same with Bulgaria, Hungary and many other countries.
So I think the biggest problem is the EU policy. If they made an agreement with Turkey to stop migrants, what can we imagine will happen with other countries who are poor countries and who’d like to have money to afford more police and to follow European orders? Even when they criticize them sometimes. A very good example is that the president of the State Agency for Refugees was calling common Bulgarian citizens to collect food for the open camps because there is not enough money for this. But, they do have enough money to increase police. So this is also part of the policies of the European Union. Of course there is corruption on the Bulgarian state level but it is part of the policy of the EU.
Forces from different EU countries are part of Frontex operations. And in the times when the migrants were not that so many, there was already Frontex at the bulgarian-turkish border. They had them working at the border police headquarter in Svilengrad, which is the main city near the Turkish border. Now they have Frontex in Elhovo, it is a small city, where is a detention center for migrants located. They were sending people to have experience. Like they were sending Romanian police to have experience at the bulgarian-turkish border. It is officially and not hidden.
M: To summarize, it’s a really hypocritical policy that wants the countries of the periphery to protect the borders of Fortress Europe at any cost while officially accusing them of violating human rights. And especially for Bulgaria, the brutal practices of the state are met with neglect. In a similar situation with Hungary, more critics were heard. For Bulgaria there is silence. The same things that are happening in Hungary, are happening in Bulgaria. But nobody on a European level wants to speak about what is happening here.
I: But I want to mention one big difference: Hungary’s foreign policy under this right wing government sometimes tries to be a little bit independent. Sometimes they say, we don’t care so much about European Union. Bulgarian policy is not like this. They say „We will do whatever European Union says“. Of course they can do more brutal things, but they will not announce it. And on the hungarian-serbian border there was this gathering of migrants that was visible for the media and here nothing is visible. This is the other problem, that we don’t have an official corridor, or we don’t have an official place, like Dimitrovgrad near the border to Bulgaria used to be, or Preševo in South Serbia, or Idomeni at the greek-macedonian border. So this makes it much more difficult, for us, for migrants, for everyone.
Besides that many people want to blame only Germans, for example, for the policy. They say “we don’t want to do anything, because the Bulgarian government is just following the rules of the EU, so we don’t have to protest against our policy”. They say, we have to go in front of the German embassy and protest there, because Germany is guilty for everything. This is also very stupid, according to my opinion, because you have to react in your own country. We have to head against ‚our‘ government and ‚our‘ policy.
What do you think, what will happen the next weeks and months?
I: I think even if the Bulgarian border would be not officially closed, I don’t expect something good from the government and unfortunately more racist attitude of the people – if the media does not stop with the propaganda and obviously they won’t stop. And it is very hard for us to organize ourselves, we are very few. We don’t have enough power. It could be that more people are coming, but I heard they also going to send the army at the bulgarian-macedonian border. So it will not be easy again for them, for sure. And still, although the policies are so brutal, still the main flows of migrants are coming from Turkey. So again I think the turkish-bulgarian border would be something like a route to Europe.
М: But I think that what happens at the hungarian border, the Bulgarian government would be probably ready to do the same, I think.
I: A good picture of this was shown, when David Cameron was here and he was congratulating Bulgaria about its policy. And after that, the two prime ministers Victor Orban and Boyko Borissov met. They like each other very much and everybody of them was greeting the other for the policy to stop the migrants.
M: I think the government in Bulgaria tries to do a combination between pro-EU “liberal” policy and at the same time to appeal to nationalists. This two things contradict only in the discourse of the official media – which is far from any real analysis of the situation.
I: But as far as the policy of the EU union becomes also racist, it is easier for the people here to follow both of the tendencies. In the summer, the Bulgarian prime minister was almost “crying” at the European Commission, that they give money only to Greece and Italy. He was saying „but we are also facing a lot of migrants“. Some weeks after that, he received money from the European Commission and they said it will go for the police at the border, not for something else.
And this policy is presented as the will of the people. It gives a lot of food for the nationalists. Before, their hate was directed more towards the Roma people, but at the end of 2013 the Roma people were almost ‚forgotten‘ for a month or so, because it was now ‚the migrants‘, presented as Islamist treat. One racist example I want to cite from the former head of the State Agency for Refugees. More than 50% of the Syrians here are Kurdish actually, and he said about the Kurdish people that they are „like the Gypsies, they are nomads, they don’t want to stay here, they just want to go somewhere in Western Europe“. I think this sentence is offensive to Kurdish people, to Roma people and to Bulgarian people.
There are a lot of international people on the Balkans. What can they really do to support your local structure here?
M: Let’s start with this: we don’t have a local structure – which is one of our biggest problems.
I: Of course people from other European countries can help us with some practical help: with money, with infrastructure, but this is not the most important thing. Maybe the most important thing is really to exchange ideas, regarding to the the local situation and try to combine our efforts like to not to act separately, decentralized, but connected. And for me personally it is very important to bring the attention to the people about this policy at the bulgarian-turkish border. We would be happy if we could do something together with international comrades, but it should be really in the context of the local situation. Not someone who comes here and think that it is some anarchist neighborhood of Athens or in Berlin and that you can do the same things here. It must be really combined with the local situation. But maybe with the international help we can do something, like at least to raise attention and to make the problem more visible.
M: In Bulgaria there is not a single place, besides the camps, where refugees can be met, by activists, by volunteers, who are willing to help them. Some month ago, the parliament passed a law that any NGO, that is connected to the migration topic in Bulgaria, should be allowed to visit all the places which are settled by migrants, also detention centers.
I: That could probably make our work easier, although some members of the parliament were saying that it could be used by radical activists. Also they are sometimes not so brutal when it comes to other European citizens, e.g. Germany who come here to check.
M: It is very important also to strengthen the influence on mainstream media. Because Bulgarian mainstream media at the moment is one-sided, presenting mostly a racist point of view against refugees. I think if somehow the mainstream media in other European countries write more about this brutality and this repression here, the media in Bulgaria will be influenced by this.
I: To add something to this, to not paint the things totally black. At the moment, it is really awful, because there are even the gangs of hunters at the border, who help the police, to look for migrants, catch them and give them to the police. But in the beginning, it was many people in the south east, who where actually helping migrants because they were seeing them as people. But they were not informed what to do. They are just seeing some, e.g. woman with children, and they give them food, give them tea – but after that they call the police – because they think that this is good for the migrants. So it’s good if we could spread information to the local people there. During the organization of the No-Border camp in 2011, we actually succeeded to change some of the prejudices of the local people in that area. Now we lost any contacts. We need a No-Border camp now, but we don’t have the possibilities to do it.
Do you see any connection from Bulgarian citizens moving to Central Europe and the migrants coming from other countries?
I: Of course this is the biggest connection. We always stress to people that there are a lot of Bulgarian migrants in Europe and now we have other migrants, but the answer is usually „yes, but we are Europeans, and they are not“. A good picture of this behavior was for example, when there were the racist announcements of Cameron against Bulgarians and Romanians in 2013: Bulgarian students in London had an article on the first page of their newspaper against this racist attitudes of the British government and on the second page they wrote „we are against the migrants from Syria“.
A good comparison in this regard would be the fact that the Bulgarian-Turkish border was the most militarized border in the totalitarian past, and now it is again the most militarized border, because of “democratic“ Europe. And Bulgarian army will also be sent to the border, so it is the same.
* We prefer to use the word ‚migrants‘, because we are against the separation of refugees and economic immigrants. We don’t think that there is a difference between fleeing from war or dictatorship, fleeing from hunger, or unemployment, or even from climate change.