Sofia, Bulgaria - When Aveen, a Kurdish refugee from Syria, was stopped as she tried to board a plane with her baby son at Sofia's international airport, she thought she knew the drill. Having already bribed her way out of a camp on Bulgaria's southern border with Turkey, she tried to shove a wad of notes into the passport official's outstretched hand.
"Security guards appeared from everywhere," Aveen says, laughing as she remembers the incident. "I spent 25 days in a detention centre."
In the second half of 2013, an estimated 15,000 refugees, the majority Kurdish Syrians, crossed into Bulgaria from Turkey - many only planning to pass through the country on their way to friends and relatives in Western Europe. The surge caught the Bulgarian and EU authorities unprepared, and a wave of international condemnation followed media reports of "overflow" camps without electricity, running water or basic healthcare provision.
What I built in 25 years in Syria has been destroyed. It's been spent in six months.
An emergency injection of EU cash narrowly averted a humanitarian disaster, but more than six months on at least 8,000 refugees remain. Like Aveen, their way forward is blocked - EU rules mean they must apply for asylum in their country of entry - and for many, the situation is again becoming desperate.
Over cups of sweet tea at their apartment in a Sofia suburb, Aveen and her husband Ciwan - the couple ask Al Jazeera not to give their real names because they are worried it will affect their pending application for refugee status - explain their situation. For 500 euros ($690) a month, they share a two-bedroom apartment with three of their children and a cousin. While their claim is processed, asylum seekers are supposed to receive a monthly allowance of 65 leva (33 euros/$46), but Aveen says the family have not yet received anything.
Only the cousin has been able to find work, earning 10 leva (5 euros/$7) a day making sweets at a shop in Sofia's Arab quarter. Beyond that, the family is living off their dwindling life savings.
"What I built in 25 years in Syria has been destroyed," says Ciwan, a former taxi driver, explaining the family sold their home and all their possessions when they fled the war. "It's been spent in six months."
Nowhere to go
Thousands more refugees don't even have savings to fall back on; many of them have stayed in the camps, saying they have nowhere else to go. Conditions have improved since the winter - families are living indoors rather than in tents; there are basic utilities and a daily hot meal - but life remains tough.
At the Voenna Rampa camp on the edge of Sofia, a former college on a dilapidated ex-industrial estate, Al Jazeera saw families crammed into what had been a basketball court, their sleeping quarters separated by blankets and wooden boards. Since March, there have been nine confirmed cases of hepatitis A among children, a disease spread by overcrowding and poor hygiene. Renovations to the buildings are ongoing.
Bulgarian officials point out the efforts they have made to improve conditions. The State Agency for Refugees (SAR) says more than 7m euros ($9.7m) - 5.6m euros ($7.8m) of which comes from the EU - has been spent on emergency measures to improve facilities and speed up the asylum process.
|Many Syrian refugees remain stranded after three years of war [Reuters]
Roland Francois-Weil, representative in Bulgaria for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, agrees the authorities are "doing their utmost" to improve conditions in the camps, and there has been a real improvement since winter. But, he warns, the next challenge is "integration" - ensuring the refugees have access to housing, education and jobs.
That won't be easy. Bulgaria is the EU's poorest member state, in the grips of an economic crisis and with soaring unemployment.
The country's minority government is being propped up with votes from the far-right Ataka party, which has organised protests against the Syrians and employed virulently nationalist rhetoric. The official refugee integration programme, which provided language lessons, job training and welfare payments, closed at the end of 2013, and the government has still not been able to agree on a new one.
Yet, according to Nikolai Chirpanliev, head of the State Agency for Refugees, many inhabitants of the camps are unwilling to look for work.
"We organised two job fairs and nobody was interested," he says. By allowing refugees to stay in the camps once they have received their status, he adds: "We discriminate against Bulgarian citizens." Another senior official at SAR complains "the refugees do not want to integrate into society and do not have working habits".
Iliana Savova, a lawyer with the Bulgaria Helsinki Committee, argues the situation is more complex, pointing out many refugees haven't been able to work since the war in Syria began more than three years ago. "If the refugees don't work, they won't be able to live," she says. "But you need a real effort to re-socialise them. Unfortunately the administration doesn't have the luxury of time, because otherwise the refugees will be left destitute."
Francois-Weil agrees. "The risk is that you end up with people homeless in the streets, which would be a disaster," he says. Savova warns the government has failed to learn the lessons of last winter's crisis: "My grim forecast is that it will happen again. Lives will be lost."
'Who can live here?'
Aveen can't understand why the refugees aren't being allowed to travel to countries where they have more chance of finding a job.
The risk is that you end up with people homeless in the streets, which would be a disaster. My grim forecast is that it will happen again. Lives will be lost.
"Bulgaria is a poor country - who can live here? Their own people emigrate to work in Western Europe," she says. But the trend in Europe is towards the tightening of borders. While more than two million people have fled the war in Syria, European states have been reluctant to resettle more than a tiny fraction.
Since fall, with EU financial support, Bulgaria has strengthened its border with Turkey - prompting complaints from human rights groups that officials are violently pushing back vulnerable people in need of protection. A number of refugees issued with three-year temporary passports in Bulgaria told Al Jazeera they had been turned away at the Romanian and Greek borders as they attempted to travel further into the EU.
According to Chirpanliev of the State Agency for Refugees, the EU has two choices: either provide financial support to help Bulgaria integrate refugees "so they can feel Bulgaria is their second motherland", or see them travel - by legal or illegal means - to other, wealthier European countries. "It is in the interest of the EU to help Bulgaria," says Francois-Weil.
"We don't blame any country," says Aveen, "the war forced us to come here."
As Aveen clears away the cups of tea, Ciwan pulls out a phone and plays a video clip showing captured fighters from the Free Syrian Army being beaten by Assad regime soldiers. The men are kneeling and lined up against a wall, which is dripping with their blood. A soldier kicks one of them in the head, while a voice off-camera shouts obscenities.
One of the prisoners leans around to look at his assailant, an expression of total fear on his face. Ciwan puts down his phone. "Europe knows what we're escaping from," he says. "Why don't they help us?
Follow Daniel Trilling on Twitter: @trillingual