Syrians face tough conditions in Bulgaria’s makeshift camps

Friday 15, November 2013

© UNHCR/D. Kashavelov
Syrians in the temporary Harmanli camp, Bulgaria, some 50 km from the Turkish border, face tough conditions and locked gates as they wait to have their asylum claims registered.

SOFIA, Bulgaria, November 15 (UNHCR) - Civil war in the Middle East is reverberating on the borders of the EU as thousands of Syrians seek refuge in Bulgaria, Europe’s poorest country.

The Bulgarian government has housed around half its 8,000 asylum-seekers in seven state-sponsored accommodation centres. But these centres, filled beyond capacity with people from Mali, Iraq, Afghanistan as well as Syria, are able to provide only basic services. The most problematic facility may be Harmanli, a squalid border camp where several hundred families – 1,100 people in total, including 300 children – languish in containers and tents.

Located 50 km from the Turkish border, Harmanli - an abandoned military base which received the first asylum-seekers on October 12 - is almost exclusively (98 percent) made up of Syrians.

But as difficult as life is in Harmanli, the Syrians there are relieved to be out of harm’s way. Still, few feel completely safe yet. No longer threatened by bombs and sniper fire, Harmanli’s inhabitants endure overcrowding and life without proper heating and hot running water.

Electricity is reported to have been installed this week – a month after it opened.

Initially, portable homes for 450 people were established for the arrivals. When this population was surpassed, asylum-seekers were forced to take refuge in un-winterized tents.

A ceiling of thin canvas is the only shelter for Syrian Jazia, 24, and her extended family.

“These conditions are not for people,” declared Jazia, a schoolteacher from the war-torn city of Hasakah. “We are freezing at night.”

Of Harmanli’s 300 children, many are feverish and coughing. Despite this epidemic of illnesses, there is no doctor in the enclosed and guarded camp, although it is reported that the most seriously ill have been allowed to leave to seek medical care.

But without funds to buy medicine, these people remain at risk, particularly those suffering from serious ailments like diabetes, tuberculosis, and Hepatitis A.

Four-year-old Syrian boy Diar has leukemia, and needs blood transfusions to survive. Prescribed the medication Exjade, the family’s supply of this drug was lost during their flight. Now, Diar’s parents have no way to pay for this life-saving medicine, which costs US $300 for a monthly dose.

“What can we do?” asked Diar’s father.

To make matter’s worse, Harmanli’s waste and sanitation facilities are strained to the limit. Although the nearby municipality carts away garbage daily, the camp’s grounds are carpeted in litter. The ten communal bathroom stalls serving about 500 people living in tents and common dormitories. Facilities are unclean, poorly maintained, and problematic for the camp’s vulnerable population. Those who arrived earlier and live in containers, have their own toilets. 

For many others in Harmanli, using the bathroom at night means walking across the length of the unlighted compound, a ritual that is potentially unsafe and clearly uncomfortable.

“I’m a woman,” said 24-year-old Jazia. “We didn’t live like this in Syria.”

But the camp’s population has proven itself resourceful by using paper waste to fuel fires, cook meals, heat water, and fight freezing temperatures at night. Local Bulgarians are also doing what they can to keep Harmanli’s fires burning, but donations are random and cannot fill the needs. “Until last, week we cut branches from the trees for fuel, but then the police brought more firewood yesterday,” said 25-year-old Mahmood, gesturing at a neat pile of chopped tree stumps stacked against the family’s shelter.

One such fire fueled by this wood engulfed a used tin can bubbling with water. “This boiling water is for the baby milk,” explained Mahmood, staring down at the spent baked beans container.

And there are more babies on the way. About a dozen women in Harmanli are pregnant, and are in need of nutrition. But food is scarce. Every five days, each asylum-seeker receives a loaf of bread, one jar of a locally produced salsa, a can of pate, and canned fish in tomato sauce.

“It’s barely enough to eat for lunch, let alone breakfast and dinner,” said 16-year-old Atar, who described how he left his family in Aleppo, travelled across Turkey with a friend, and came to Bulgaria to reunite with an aunt.

After the hardship of that journey, Atar is relieved to have a roof over his head, even if he shares it with sixty other men who share his makeshift dormitory near the entrance to the locked camp. Now that he has made contact with his aunt, he is already planning his future.

“My dream is to study in the UK,” he said. “I want to become a lawyer.”

Ironically, he is already in their company. During the day, Bulgarian lawyers prowl the camp’s gates offering legal services, and housing arrangements. These lawyers demand US $100 up front, which is a high-risk transaction.

“They just take the money and never come back“, said 33-year-old Issam, who was forced to leave his wife and children in Damascus. Like every other Syrian in the camp, his dream is to reunite with family.

But first Issam must leave Harmanli. But before anyone can go, the Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees must register the camp’s inhabitants according to asylum procedures, a process that may take time given the camp’s huge population.

With winter approaching, food scarce, and people ailing, registration will be a race. And sadly, due to staff shortages in the camp, time is not on their side.

By Boris Cheshirkov in Harmanli, Bulgaria

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