Refugees share stories of a violent welcome to Europe

Refugees report being the victims of violence on the Bulgarian border as they attempt to reach safety in Europe.

Syrian refugees try to stay warm in Bulgaria
Many refugees are reluctant to report abuse they've experienced out of fear that it may harm their chances of getting asylum [AP /Valentina Petrova]

Sofia, Bulgaria – In mid-October, Bulgarian media reported that Prime Minister Boyko Borisov had left a high-level European Union meeting in Brussels after he was informed of a shooting incident at the border.

Initial reports claimed that there had been a shoot-out after “armed migrants” attacked the police, and that one “illegal migrant” from Afghanistan was dead.

At a press conference the next day, however, Georgi Kostov, the head of police, clarified that the “migrants” were neither armed, nor were they at the border.

Four days later, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a local human rights group, published a statement questioning the official version of events. Its representatives interviewed 20 of the Afghan refugees, who said that they were not aggressive towards the police and were in fact trying to flee when two policemen started shooting. According to the committee, the victim was 19-year-old Ziaullah Vafa.

This was the first shooting of a refugee by Bulgarian border police in recent years, but not the first death. 

According to Tihomir Bezlov, an analyst at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, beatings and the pushing of refugees back to the other side of the border has been “normal” practice at the Bulgarian border. “This is part of the strategy to make them pass through somewhere else,” he says.

In 2013, Bulgarian National TV broadcast a news report showing border policemen saying that they were given instructions to beat refugees and send them back across the border to Turkey.

Yet despite reports showing evidence of these crimes, the Bulgarian authorities have taken little or no action to stop or punish them, human rights organisations say.

Layla’s story

“My journey from Syria to Bulgaria was difficult and painful. It was fraught with humiliation, torment, oppression and exhaustion,” says 27-year-old Layla (not her real name) as she begins to tell her story.

With her husband and two young children, Layla left Damascus in late 2013 for Turkey, hoping to find safety in Europe. They made it to Edirne, a Turkish city some 20km from the Bulgarian-Turkish border.

Layla says smugglers took them to a forest close to the border. They walked for hours until they saw the border demarcation. But, as they approached, a border guard appeared before them and told them to go back.

At first, Layla refused. 

“He put a gun to my head and told me, ‘go back’,” she recalls. The family retreated back into the forest.

Lost, they walked for hours in the rain. Then they came upon a group of men dressed in military uniforms, who arrested them.

“They started beating my husband in front of my children. I begged them to stop,” she says.

“There is more,” she says. “There’s the border jail. More suffering.” But she cannot finish her story. The pain is too great, she says, and she wants to forget.

Now in Germany, after arriving via a car organised by a smuggler, Layla lives in constant fear of deportation. Her application for asylum there has already been rejected once and she is terrified of being sent back to Bulgaria, her point of arrival in Europe and the country where she went through “hell”, she says.

Mohamed’s story

Knowing that being registered in Bulgaria as a refugee might force him to stay in the country, 17-year-old Mohamed (not his real name) is careful not to be caught. He had entered Bulgaria four days earlier and was staying at a safe house on the outskirts of Sofia, when he agreed to talk to Al Jazeera.

But Mohamed’s story starts in Al-Qamishli, a Kurdish-majority town in northeastern Syria, where frequent bombings and insecurity forced him to flee this summer. He made it to Edirne, in Turkey, from where he and his cousin joined a small group of refugees on their journey to the Bulgarian border.

Having heard that refugees were sometimes beaten at the border, Mohamed – fearing that those without money might be beaten even harder – split the $500 he had with his cousin.

He says the border police caught them after they had already crossed into Bulgaria, and searched each one of them, taking money, phones and any other valuables they had on their person or among their belongings.

He remembers how one officer searched his bag, throwing out his documents and school papers as he did so. When he reached out to retrieve them, Mohamed says the officer hit him.

His papers remained where they had been thrown as Mohamed and the other refugees were loaded on to a lorry and driven close to the border. The police beat them with batons, he says, as they pushed them back across the border and into Turkey.

After this, Mohamed’s cousin decided to head west through Greece. But Mohamed kept trying to get into Bulgaria. On his fifth try, he succeeded.

Now, he says he is not afraid of what comes next on his journey to Germany.

“I already got beaten, walked hungry and thirsty, slept on the ground. I’m not afraid,” he says.

Official denial

Neither Layla nor Mohamed went to the Bulgarian authorities to complain about what had happened to them.

Iliana Savova, the director of the Refugee and Migrant Programme at the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, says that they have registered only 26 cases of violence against refugees at the Bulgarian border in 2014. Asylum seekers are reluctant to share such information, she explains, either because they doubt they will receive justice or because they think that speaking out may harm their chances of getting asylum. Oxfam has also reported that in 2015 of 110 refugees interviewed all who had been in contact with police had experienced abuse. 

Savova says that when the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee submits information to the Ministry of Interior about push-backs and violence, the ministry launches internal investigations. But, so far, none has found that there was any wrongdoing. 

According to Barbora Cernusakova, a researcher at Amnesty International, the internal investigations into instances of violence are “not thorough” and “not adequate”.

“In general it can be said that there is a denial [from the authorities] that these sort of abuses are happening,” says Cernusakova.

Despite international condemnation of the shooting of Ziaullah Vafa, the Bulgarian authorities have not publicly discussed measures to protect refugees from abuse at the border.

A few days after the shooting of the Afghan refugee, Meglena Kuneva, the deputy prime minister and former European commissioner, said: “Any comments by politically engaged people […], which put the label ‘murder’ or ‘lack of professionalism’ [on the incident], are very much against respecting Bulgarian institutions.”

At the time of publication, the Ministry of Interior had not responded to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

Source: Al Jazeera