Hate crimes in Bulgaria are on the rise amid a burgeoning number of war refugees arriving in the eastern European country, and the government is failing to tackle the problem, human rights campaigners say.
Ruslan Trad, president of the Forum for Arab Culture, said he has begun to feel uneasy over the past two years living in the capital Sofia after receiving threats on social media and facing harassment on the streets.
“There is a sense of anxiety,” he told Al Jazeera. “Even people of the older generation [of Arab immigrants] say that they feel a difference in how many people treat them because of stereotypes and the political [hate] speech. They feel unwelcome.”
A recent report by Amnesty International accused Bulgaria of failing to properly investigate a rising number of hate attacks.
“Hate crimes in Bulgaria remain largely hidden and unacknowledged,” concluded the report, titled: “Missing the point: Lack of adequate investigation of hate crimes in Bulgaria.”
crimes are abundant, and the prosecution and the authorities rarely investigate them.”]
The report comes five months after a similar one issued by the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance, and a year after the European Court of Human Rights found Bulgaria violated the Human Rights Convention by failing to investigate a 2008 attack on a Sudanese national as a hate crime.
To Bulgarian activists who work with minorities and refugees, the Amnesty report came as no surprise.
“Only in January, I heard of two confirmed incidents of stabbings of refugees at the same place near the refugee centre in the [Sofia] neighbourhood of Ovcha Kupel, and I have heard rumours of a third case,” said Borislav Dimitrov, a law school graduate and volunteer with the group Friends of the Refugees, who has worked with refugees since 2012.
“Such [hate] crimes are abundant, and the prosecution and the authorities rarely investigate them. I don’t know of anyone who has been convicted for a hate crime,” Dimitrov added.
The Sofia Prosecution Office began investigating 80 crimes against ethnic minorities between January 2013 and March 2014, according to the Amnesty report.
However, there are no comprehensive statistics on hate crimes in Bulgaria – not only because the government does not publish this data, but also because many attacks and abuses go unreported.
According to Svetla Encheva, a sociologist and researcher on migration and human rights issues, many victims of hate crimes from marginalised communities in Bulgaria do not trust the police.
“When they do [inform the police], it is not unusual for the authorities to treat them with disregard and to refuse to register the crime,” she explained.
Why so much hate?
In Bulgaria, attacks on minorities are not a new phenomenon.
The past decade has seen arson attempts against mosques, attacks on LGBT activists, and assaults on members of the Turkish and Roma minorities.
However, according to human rights activists, there has been a spike in hate crimes starting in 2013, which has coincided with the recent arrival of a large number of refugees.
Statistics from Bulgaria’s State Agency for Refugees show in 2011 some 890 people were seeking asylum in Bulgaria. In 2014, this number was more than 10 times higher, at 11,081. The majority of the refugees come from Syria and Afghanistan.
Iliana Savova, director of the Refugee and Migrant Programme of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, said the influx of refugees was not in itself the reason for escalating attacks.
“The blame for the increase in hate crimes and negative attitudes in society [towards refugees] lies with those in power, because almost all political parties encouraged hatred through the media,” she told Al Jazeera.
“This approach is always used in poor societies when those in power are failing and need to take away attention from their mistakes by pointing to an easily distinguishable ‘enemy’.“
Savova said Bulgarian society is not inherently racist or xenophobic, but hate speech against refugees and migrants in the media and the political sphere has increased tensions.
“The prosecution must not shy away from indicting politicians, because it’s unacceptable for leaders of political parties to incite hatred and racism,” she said, adding hate speech is criminalised in Bulgaria.
Since 2013, a number of Bulgarian politicians and government officials have publicly made racist remarks against refugees.
In 2013, during a parliamentary debate, members of the ultra-nationalist Ataka Party referred to refugees as a “jihadist mob” and “infiltrated [sic] Muslim terrorists”.
Some government officials have called refugees a “threat to the national security” of the country.
“The only people who stay in Bulgaria are the Kurdish, who are worse than our Gypsies in every aspect,” said the former head of Bulgaria’s refugee agency Colonel Nikolai Tchirpanliev.
The Association of European Journalists found in a 2013 study of 8,439 articles in Bulgarian online media the three words most associated with refugee were “threat”, “disease”, and “danger”.
This type of rhetoric has spread fear among Bulgaria’s Arabs, Jews, Turks and Roma.
Trad explained some Arabs in Bulgaria feel worried and a few have decided to move their businesses elsewhere. He said people who volunteer to help refugees, like himself, also face mistreatment.
|Bulgaria’s far right targets refugees|
Trad said he sees the political empowerment of the far right as one of the main factors contributing to the increasing number of hate crimes.
Far-right factions have been responsible for organised violence against minorities, such as the 2008 attack on the first gay pride parade in Sofia, and the 2011 attack on the Banya Bashi mosque in the capital, during Friday prayers.
Most recently, these ultra-nationalists have organised vigilante groups to “patrol” neighbourhoods in Sofia with high concentrations of refugees and migrants.
“The state institutions did not fail to protect the refugees and minorities from attacks,” said Encheva, the sociologist and migration researcher. “They just never even tried to do so.”
She said the Bulgarian state does not provide adequate legal protection to asylum seekers and members of minority groups.
According to the Amnesty report, Bulgarian authorities have failed to ensure that the rights of victims of hate crimes are respected, and have not succeeded in facilitating their access to the justice system.
This, the report said, has resulted in a growing mistrust of state institutions.
Bulgaria’s Deputy Minister of Justice Petko Petkov admitted there are grounds for the allegations made by the rights activists.
“The Bulgarian Criminal Code has provisions for hate crimes. There are some shortcomings pointed out in the report which we could change,” Petkov told Al Jazeera.
Nevertheless, he said such changes would not resolve the main problem – namely, the failure to investigate hate crimes – which falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior and the Prosecution Office.
When contacted by Al Jazeera, the Ministry of Interior’s press centre refused to comment.
The Prosecution Office released a statement explaining that prosecutors comment only on specific cases. It added attacks on refugees and minorities are investigated according to Article 10 of the Criminal Code, regardless of the ethnic origin of the victim.
According to Savova, the barriers that victims of hate crimes seeking justice face are not legal, but institutional.
“They face problems that are common to the whole justice system, such as the ineffectiveness of the prosecution, the unwillingness to investigate crimes, inadequate investigation, misplaced accusations, etc,” she said.
“The institutions must do their jobs.”