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Bulgaria, migrants are not welcome. Patashev (Caritas): “Tragic situation”

Public authorities stand idly by in the face of reception, nationalisms fuel fears, the media present a distorted image of the issue. The Catholic Church argues in favour of integration, Caritas tries to help whenever possible. The case of the citizens of Belene who rejected a Syrian family. But there is more...

Una famiglia di profughi in Bulgaria

“Let them go elsewhere, we cannot welcome them here” says Ivan, 72, when asked about the refugees. His is one of the many voices heard in Bulgaria over the past days. Although in the past the situation was different: approximately 70 years ago, on March 9 1943, the Bulgarians prevented the deportation of Jews to concentration camps. Twenty years earlier, thousands of Armenian refugees took shelter in the Balkan country. They were all welcomed with open arms by the Bulgarian people, on whose lands Orthodox, Muslims, Catholics and Jews have lived together in peace for centuries. But the situation today is completely different. Disappointed and with little hope in the future, the Bulgarian people don’t even believe that they can save themselves. And migrants are seen as a threat, although they are few. Accepting a family of refugees sparks off divisions within the same town.

Rejected Syrian family. It happened in Belene, in north-east Bulgaria, where Catholic Fr Paolo Cortesi, Italian, in the Country since 2010, wished to give hospitality to a Syrian family: a father, mother and two children aged 23 and 15. They arrived from Greece, they were part of an EU relocation plan and had all the required documents. But a large part of the local population opposed their permanence in their city for fears that thousands would have poured in after them, thereby “competing” in the desperate quest for a job that is very hard to find in this area. Streets protests ensued, which resulted in the mayor’s decision not to register them. At that point the Syrian family was forced to seek hospitality elsewhere, in large cities where their presence would pass unnoticed. While Father Cortesi, who received death threats, was recalled for an indefinite period by his superiors in Italy.

Six refugee camps. Bulgaria is the only Balkan country experiencing problems involving immigrants owing to its status of EU Member country. In fact, Serbia and Macedonia are just transit countries of refugees following the “Balkan route,” a few thousand are blocked by the closing of the border with Hungary. Sofia welcomed 13 thousand refugees, and six refugee-camps were set up throughout the Country. But once they are recognized international protection status the refugees have to find a home for themselves.

“People don’t want them in the cities where they live”,

Emanuil Patashev, Secretary General of Caritas Bulgaria, told SIR. Caritas is in the frontline of assistance to refugees since the outbreak of the conflict in Kosovo. In February a new migrant relief centre was opened in Sofia. “We help them with everything: to obtain legal papers, to find a home to learn Bulgarian, to find a job…” He pointed out: “Bulgarians’ fears are unfounded. And there are also many non-Catholic volunteers who help the migrants.” “However, nobody wants to rent their homes to refugees, even in the capital, Sofia, while in this respect the situation in small towns is tragic.”

The absence of the State. In his opinion, “the migrant question in Bulgaria is a hanging issue. Although in writing the Country pledged to welcome and integrate refugees, in concrete terms public authorities stand idly by. They examine the documents and leave it up to non-governmental organizations to handle the refugees, hoping in fewer arrivals.” “For the State it’s more important to build the wall on the border with Turkey and reach agreements with Turkey to stop refugees from entering the Country”, Patashev remarked. Against the backdrop of a situation marked by the absence of public authorities, nationalistic paramilitary forces patrol border areas to keep migrants out. “Media outlets’ portrayal of refugees as potential terrorists has created a distorted image of the migrant population, which does not correspond to the truth”, said Caritas Secretary General, who added: “the immigrant problem is not addressed in public debate, nor is there a dedicated institution for them in the Country.”

Hostility and indignation. However, the issue was tackled in political debates ahead of the parliamentary elections of March 26. The theme is exploited by the Patriotic Union in particular: “Nationalists enjoy raising alarm over the arrival of foreigners, but the latter represent no more than 10% of the Bulgarian population. Many people are filled with indignation at the hostility against migrants” Patascev pointed out. He added:

“the issue can’t be decided by the man-on-the-street: there are rules and values that ought to be defended.”

The support of the Catholic Church. Bulgarian bishops have argued in favour of refugees’ reception, but it’s a difficult situation for them too. In Belene 70% of the local population are Catholic, but the protests of a few nationalists were enough to send away the only family who had dared to hope in the beginning of a new life in the Country. “It’s a very complex situation, which in some cases is tragic. But we continue doing the best we can”, Patashev said, who firmly believes that people of good will are increasing “because ultimately, they belong to the same People who saved their Jews 70 years ago.”

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