Sofia, Bulgaria – This is not the safe heaven Ali was expecting. Chased from his hometown of Aleppo by the horrors of the Syrian civil war, he and his extended family of 17 relatives arrived in Bulgaria, attracted by promises of a well-functioning European Union state, quick asylum procedures and a good economy. The reality, he says, couldn’t be more different.
Shortly after arriving here in the capital, Sofia, on November 4, Ali was stabbed in the back while waiting to enter one of the three camps for asylum seekers. He is still in hospital though the immediate threat to his life has passed. Witnesses told Al Jazeera he was attacked by a muscular white male.
“He was stabbed by a Bulgarian,” said a resident of the Voenna Rampa refugee camp, where the attack occurred. The resident asked to remain anonymous, fearing his asylum procedure may be delayed if he were identified.
“The investigation is ongoing,” a spokeswoman from the Ministry of Interior told Al Jazeera. She refused to comment on the ethnicity of the suspected attacker.
‘A permanent crisis’
The incident highlights the rising tensions in the poorest member of the European Union. The country does not seem ready to face the growing number of immigrants from Syria and elsewhere. “We have a serious problem,” Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev told the NovaTV morning show on November 6. “This is not only a spike, but a permanent crisis, caused by the increased migration pressure on our country.”
There are 9,567 refugees in the country, according to the November 6 figures from the Ministry of Interior. Around 70 percent are Syrian. The migrant number may be small, taken in light of the huge Syrian humanitarian crisis, but Bulgaria is not prepared to deal with it. This has resulted in overcrowded housing facilities for asylum seekers.
“We have no water, no medical help. No help from government, nothing,” 18-year old Hussain from Qamishli told Al Jazeera. “People in Syria told me Bulgaria is good. This is not true,” said the young man, who is planning to continue his journey to Germany.
The growing number of Syrians in Bulgaria has not resulted in an increased number of crimes, Yovchev assured a parliamentary briefing. Instead, he said, “we have a problem with people coming from North Africa”.
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Salahadin bin Aladin is a 20-year-old from Algeria. He is the suspect in an ongoing robbery investigation after Viktoria Hristova, a 20-year old Bulgarian shop clerk, was stabbed in the centre of Sofia on November 1. Aladin was caught on November 6 in Greece after an extensive search by Bulgarian authorities. Details of his stay in Bulgaria reveal the gaps in the country’s asylum system.
Aladin was living outside the overcrowded refugee camps, Minister Yovchev pointed out. He was waiting for the state agency for refugees to give a verdict on his case for asylum. “A lot of people are without documents,” added Yorchev. “Such [documents] should be issued by the respective diplomatic missions. We have a problem with some of the ambassadors, who don’t want to issue them.”
Meanwhile, far-right nationalist groups were quick to ride the wave of discontent following Hristova’s stabbing.
The VMRO party and the ultranationalist Ataka [“Attack”], both campaigning on an anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim agenda, held two separate rallies in the capital on the day after the attack. Angel Djambazki, the deputy leader of VMRO, called for people to “clean the city” – taking “self-defence actions” by establishing “volunteer patrols and units”.
Two incidents were reported shortly after the demonstrations.
A Roma family of two were beaten by a group of thugs with shaved heads, and a Nigerian migrant was attacked while riding a city bus – intervention from other Bulgarian passengers is believed to have prevented the attack from becoming more serious.
On the evening of November 3, two nights after the shop clerk’s stabbing, “ultras” from FC Levski displayed a banner proclaiming: “Death to the refugees” during a football match in the capital. The Bulgarian Football Union sanctioned the club with a fine of 3,000 leva [roughly $2,000].
The hate speech is fuelled further by various media, incuding the Ataka party newspaper, which has run headlines such as “Muslim ‘refugees’ – the new threat to Bulgaria”. Magdalena Tasheva, an editor of the newspaper and an Ataka MP, has frequently called the refugees “cannibals” and “Islamic fundamentalists”.
This increasing xenophobia could turn into a bigger problem for the former communist country. The refugee community has become more introspective and insular since the attacks began. “We are afraid to leave the camp after dark,” said Ali, a 50-year-old spokesman for the refugees in the Voenna Rampa camp. “We asked for more security here. The Syrian people are peaceful.”
Some Bulgarians were quick to denounce the xenophobic talk after the attack against 17-year-old Ali. A candlelight vigil was attented by around 200 people in Sofia.
“I believe everybody has the right for a new chance,” 26-year-old Boris Dimitrov told Al Jazeera. He is part of the growing Facebook group “Friends of the Refugees”, which is organising regular donations to camps around the country. Dimitrov condemned the hate speech, saying it was counterproductive. “It can lead to more tension,” he said.
The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHK), a human rights group, filed a complaint with the Sofia Prosecutor’s Office against VMRO leader Angel Djambazki, over his recent call to arms. Djambazki later denied inciting violence and discrimination.
The group also sent an open letter to the ministry of interior, pointing out problems in state policy.
“We call on Minister of Interior Tsvetlin Yovchev not to damage the reputation of our country by allowing serious violations of international law and Bulgarian legislation,” Margarita Ilieva, head of the legal programme at BHK, told Al Jazeera.
The number of refugees is expected to rise in the coming months with the deepening of the Syrian civil war. “The trend is such that the migration pressure is not decreasing, it’s continuing and even increasing from time to time,” Yovchev told a weekly parliamentary hearing.
This is bound to raise tensions yet further. Residents of Telish, a small village in northern Bulgaria, have already protested against plans to create a refugee centre in a former army barracks near their homes.
“We don’t want no refugees, they can bring disease and crime,” an elderly woman told a local TV station shortly before blocking a main road in protest. Minister Yovchev spoke with residents on November 5, but left without agreement. During their meeting, he was handed a petition, signed by more than two-thirds of the village, demanding that no refugees be allowed in the hamlet.
Amid the controversy, Ali lies in his hospital bed, hoping that a solution will be found before others suffer a fate similar to his.
Follow Krassimir Yankov on Twitter: @yankovk