Syrian refugees leave Bulgaria for German limbo

Krasimir Yankov Sofia, Kazanlak, Dortmund and Gelnhausen

Many Syrians use Bulgaria as a stepping stone to the heart of Europe - although EU rules say asylum-seekers are meant to stay put.

The Ladies' Market in Sofia

Photo: Krasimir Yankov

The last words of the call to prayer slowly blended with the street noise as the taxi came to a halt on a warm June evening. Ali Najaf looked around and stepped onto the cobbled street. His deep brown eyes scanned the stalls and shops of the Ladies’ Market, a lively part of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia.

The area is popular with Middle Eastern migrants and it did not take long for Ali to find someone who spoke his native languages, Kurdish and Arabic.

“Is this where they take refugees to Germany?” Ali asked in a low voice of two men idling on the steps of a second-hand clothes shop. After a nod towards the door, Ali wrestled his bags inside. All his family’s belongings had been packed into two backpacks, a small suitcase and a grocery store bag. Ali, his mother, brother and two sisters were on the move again.

Ali and his family, whose names have been changed in this story at their request, are among thousands of Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war who sought refuge in Bulgaria last year then travelled across Europe in search of a better life. The story of their journey exposes both the hardships they face and the gaps between European Union asylum policy and reality.

To shed light on their experiences, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network has followed the progress of Ali’s family and other refugees since late last year, visiting them in Bulgaria and Germany and receiving updates by phone and social media. BIRN has also interviewed officials dealing with refugees in both countries about the challenges they face.

 Ali is a skinny, 25-year-old Kurdish student with raven-black hair. His father died when he was a young boy in Rojava, the name Kurds use for their homeland in Syria. His command of English has made him the de-facto head of the family since they became refugees and he seeks to project an air of confidence and control.

Back in Syria, Ali studied petroleum engineering in the city of Homs. In the summer of 2013, he was returning to his hometown, after sitting end-of-term exams, when masked militants stopped his bus.

“They told all the boys to get off and threatened to cut our throats if we didn’t tell them what they wanted. But I knew nothing about their questions,” Ali recalled.

The young men were released after five days in captivity. Later, aircraft bombed the militants’ hideout, killing their leader, and the group suspected that Ali and the others told the Syrian regime where to strike.

“They put a price on our heads. So we had to leave,” Ali said.

The family hastily left Syria with the help of a friend who took them across the border to Turkey and then by bus to Istanbul, where they spent about a month. In late 2013, a smuggler took the family to the Bulgarian border and pointed to an old lumberjack route through the forest - a path into the EU.

Around this time, with refugees in Turkey facing increasingly difficult conditions, thousands of Syrians and other asylum-seekers crossed the same 30km-long stretch of land. The area, near the Bulgarian border post of Lesovo, is hilly and wooded, making it hard for thermal cameras to detect people.

The influx trickled to a halt after more than 1,000 police officers were deployed in November to guard the border. The government also completed a large barbed wire fence there in July this year.

Reality check

 Ali’s first impressions of the EU did not live up to his expectations. Bulgaria is the poorest of the EU’s 28 member states, and it has struggled to cope with the arrival of nearly 11,000 people, most of them Syrian - even though they form only a tiny proportion of the 3 million Syrians who have fled the war since it began in 2011.

“In a matter of weeks, the situation became so dire that all the centres were overcrowded, people were sleeping up to 20 (in a room)... in the corridors of centres, outside,” said Boris Cheshirkov, spokesman for the Sofia office of the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR. “Bulgaria was completely unprepared to handle the influx.”

After submitting asylum claims, Ali and his family were moved to the Harmanli refugee camp, an abandoned military barracks about 60km from the border that had been hastily overhauled to ease overcrowding at other sites. Drizzle was falling from the grey skies and the courtyard had turned into a mud pit by the time Ali arrived.

As the buildings were dirty, damp and hazardous, the refugees were initially put in military tents and converted shipping containers with no access to toilets, water or electricity.

“We stayed like this for two weeks,” Ali said, showing pictures and videos on his phone. In some, he and his friends are cracking jokes and smiling. In others, they are clutching infants, shivering in the cold while women prepare meals on bonfires. The only authorities present are a dozen silent policemen and the camp’s then-director, a former military man loathed by the refugees.

 Syrian refugees recount their experiences in Bulgaria and Germany

With the authorities caught flat-footed, some Bulgarian citizens and charities stepped in to help, providing food and clothes and trying to improve conditions in the camps. But the refugees’ arrival also led to a rise in racist sentiment.

A leader of a small but vocal nationalist party called for “the cleaning of the city” and for “self-defence actions” to be taken in Sofia. On her television show, a parliamentarian from a party that says it represents Orthodox Christian values accused the Syrians of being part of an undercover Islamist invasion.

Police recorded a spike in attacks on people with darker skin in public places, such as bus stops and on trams, in November 2013. Two men attacked a 28-year-old Bulgarian of Turkish ethnicity on his way home from work in Sofia, beating him into a coma.

In April this year, residents of Rozovo, a small village in central Bulgaria, chased out a 15-member Syrian refugee family trying to rent a house there. In September, people from the village of Kalishte protested against plans to enrol the children of asylum seekers at the local school while the local council called in vain for the nearby refugee camp to be closed by the end of October.

“All refugees prefer to settle in Western European countries ... We are just a transit centre”

- Nikolai Tchirpanliev, director of Bulgaria’s State Agency for Refugees.

Prejudice against the refugees is not limited to parts of the Bulgarian public. Even the highest levels of the country’s State Agency for Refugees are not immune to it. Nikolai Tchirpanliev, the agency’s director, questioned whether Syrians told the truth about conditions in the camps.

“It is well known that Arabs have a tendency to lie. This is part of their ethnic group. That’s just how they live,” he said in an interview with BIRN.

The statement is typical of Tchirpanliev’s outspoken style. The burly ex-military officer also keeps the music loud while receiving visitors in his spacious office. With a smile he suggested that the room was bugged.

But Tchirpanliev has achieved what he was appointed last year to do - sort out the mess in the camps.

Nikolai Tchirpanliev, the head of Bulgaria's State Agency for Refugees

Photo: Krasimir Yankov

During his tenure, the number of agency staff has doubled, the camps have increased their capacity and accommodation has been brought up to international standards.

“Everything seems very correct and ... under control,” Tchirpanliev declared with satisfaction.

However, Bulgaria lacks a programme to help refugees integrate into society. A previous scheme offering language classes and vocational courses, designed for fewer than 100 people, ended last year. A new programme has been drawn up but has yet to be implemented.

Officials suggest it may not make much difference anyway.

“To be honest… all refugees prefer to settle in Western European countries and not in Bulgaria, or anywhere in the Balkans,” Tchirpanliev said. “We are just a transit centre.”

Destination Germany

For Ali and his family, this assessment was accurate.

“I want to go to Germany, because they give you support and pay for your education. I want to finish my degree and then bring my love from Syria, so I can start a family,” he said in early June while living in the city of Kazanlak, awaiting Bulgarian travel documents.

Many other refugees decided to make the same journey. In the first eight months of this year, Germany registered some 3,850 Syrians who first showed up in the EU’s fingerprint database for asylum-seekers in Bulgaria, according to the Interior Ministry in Berlin. 

Ali was keen to go to Germany partly because he had an uncle already living there. But making the trip was not easy. First, he needed the paperwork from the Bulgarian authorities - a process he says took eight months.

The State Agency for Refugees grants asylum documents for three or five years. Ali was lucky - he was granted the five-year version, which allows travel anywhere in the EU without a visa.

Ali Najaf, the pseudonym used by the Syrian refugee at the centre of this story, seen here in the Bulgarian town of Kazanlak earlier this year

Photo: Krasimir Yankov

EU rules are meant to stop people who claim or obtain asylum in one EU country from then going to live in another.

Those such as Ali who receive refugee status in one EU member state are meant to remain there. They are not meant to re-apply for asylum in another EU country. But Ali decided to go to Germany anyway and lodge an asylum claim there.

Worried by media reports about Syrians being turned back at the border, he did not buy a regular ticket at the airport or the bus station. Instead, he paid a smuggler, well known for taking people from Bulgaria to Germany. Hence his trip to the Ladies’ Market in Sofia.

Ali had to borrow money from relatives and friends for his trip. The journey took 35 hours in an old red minivan carrying eight people and cost 235 euro per person, including small bribes on the Romanian and Hungarian borders, Ali said.

“We got really scared at the border but the driver handled everything really well. We just gave him the money and he handed it over to the border guards. No questions asked,” he recounted, waiting for dinner at a reception centre in Dortmund a couple of days after arriving in Germany.

After a day there, the Najafs were transferred to the small town of Eisenhüttenstadt in eastern Germany, where they would be interviewed about their asylum applications.

Initially, Ali planned to say he had been fingerprinted in Bulgaria but never received any documents. He changed his mind, however, and decided to admit he threw away his Bulgarian papers on the highway. He hoped his story of capture by Islamist militants would persuade the German authorities to give him asylum anyway.

“I want political asylum, so I will be honest,” he said.

Good intentions

 Aisha Hajjar and her husband, Farid, who come from the destroyed Syrian commercial capital of Aleppo, say they also tried to be honest, but it has not helped them.

They and their three children, a boy aged 12, a teenage girl and a daughter in her early twenties, arrived in Bulgaria shortly before Ali in October 2013, using the same route.

Aisha and Farid and their two younger children travelled to Germany in February, registered in the same Dortmund centre and were sent to the small town of Gelnhausen, near Frankfurt. Besan, their 21-year-old daughter, initially stayed in Sofia, as she had a job there, but joined the family in April.

Life in Gelnhausen, a picturesque town with neat white-walled, timber-framed houses, is much better than it was in Bulgaria, where asylum seekers receive 65 lev (about 33 euros) a month from the state while staying in the camps.

Aisha and Farid Hajjar, Syrian refugees who entered the European Union in Bulgaria but now live in Gelnhausen, Germany

Photo: Krasimir Yankov

German authorities have given the family a two-bedroom apartment in a building that houses other refugees. The state pays the rent and gives them a total of about 1,100 euros per month for groceries and other expenses.

Aisha, a kindly woman in her 40s who wears a veil and often speaks about the virtues of Islam, divides her time between cooking for her family and browsing religious pages on Facebook.  Zakariya, their son, spent the summer on his tablet or at the local swimming pool.

Besan, who has an infectious laugh and rattles off question after question in conversation, met a young Syrian man who asked her father for her hand in marriage. Farid, a calm man in his 50s with shoulder-length greying hair, agreed.

A local retired woman started visiting the house, offering free language classes and telling stories about Germany.

But a letter in June from Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees cast a shadow over their new life. Their asylum request had been denied as they had already made a successful application in Bulgaria.

Spending more than 1,000 euros on a lawyer did not help; a court rejected their appeal against the decision.

“Now they can send us back to Bulgaria at any moment,” Aisha said in the kitchen of their apartment, playing anxiously with her fingers.

In reality, people often avoid being sent back from Germany to the country where they first sought asylum. Between 200 and 300 asylum claims were rejected in the Gelnhausen area in the first half of this year. Most applicants were told they must go back to Italy. However, only one has actually been sent back, according to a local official.

“And when two or three or four, or 10 or 20 or 100 will be sent back to Italy, they come again - they come back to Germany,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Then the same procedure will begin from the start.”

Last year, Germany sent Syrians back to Bulgaria in just seven cases, according to the German Interior Ministry. Those cases were handled under the EU’s Dublin Regulation, which covers people who apply for asylum in one country and then move to another.

Implementation of that measure has been low for legal, bureaucratic and political reasons, according to migration experts.

People such as Ali and Aisha are in another category - they have already been granted asylum by one EU country and are allowed to stay in another EU state for up to three months as tourists. After that, Germany can try to send them back to Bulgaria, although they may be able to take legal action to avoid this, arguing that their human rights would be violated.

So, families such as Ali’s and Aisha’s must live with uncertainty, as well as with the stress and sadness of being war refugees far from their homeland.

After a month in Eisenhüttenstadt, Ali praised the respect he has received from the German authorities, but said he felt people were colder than back home. He had decided to put his plans to study on hold and was missing his girlfriend.

“Now I want to get asylum and find a reputable job, so I can bring her here and we can get married. Then I can finish my studies,” he said in a Facebook message.

But one thing has not changed - his resolve to stay in Germany, even if his asylum application is rejected. “This is the end of the road,” he insisted. “I’m not going back.”


Krasimir Yankov is a reporter in the international news department at Capital Weekly in Sofia. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

Fellow Bio


Krasimir Yankov

Krasimir Yankov is a freelance journalist and researcher from Bulgaria, currently based in Ukraine, who previously worked as a foreign news reporter for the Capital weekly in Sofia.


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