Analysts say a recent surge in attacks against Syrian refugees in Bulgaria is a result of the political ambitions of nationalist movements that will not prevail.
By Tzvetina Borisova for Southeast European Times in Sofia -- 19/12/13
Recent attacks against Syrian refugees in Bulgaria alarm international organisations. [AFP]
International organisations are concerned about an increased number of attacks in Bulgaria against Syrian refugees and migrants from the Middle East and northern Africa and are urging authorities to "take a clear and public stance that xenophobic and racist violence will not be tolerated."
"Refugees and migrants must be protected from any further harassment and violence," Amnesty International said in a statement after the latest incident, in which two Syrian men were beaten in Sofia.
Bulgaria Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski and President Rossen Plevneliev called for tolerance and warned against xenophobia and pseudo-nationalism.
"Recently we witnessed some worrying incidents, criminal acts of attack, combined with attempts to incite hatred and calls to drive all refugees out of the country," Oresharski and Plevneliev said in a joint statement. "Inciting hatred and intolerance against the people who are different and trying to get them to oppose each other is extremely dangerous and unacceptable and should be firmly slammed."
Anti-Syrian sentiment is also on the rise in Turkey, warned the web portal Al-Monitor, which publicised a recent internet campaign "No to Syrians in Turkey," that was launched on the popular website Eksi Sozluk [Sour Dictionary].
"[Syrians] elicit antipathy because they are unqualified and are pushing up the crime rate in Turkey, while the government is giving them the money it withholds from its own citizens," Al-Monitor quoted the site as saying, calling the campaign "an online manifestation of racism against Syrian refugees in Turkey."
Ruslan Trad, chairman of the Forum for Arab Culture NGO, said there are indeed some extreme rightist political forces that are trying to take advantage of the wave of refugees.
The latest example is the New Nationalist Party of Bulgaria, which was set up in early November. Meanwhile, another nationalist organisation, National Unity, has organised civil "patrols" -- groups of its members allegedly tasked with protecting order in the areas of Sofia with high a concentration of refugees and migrants. Human rights defenders have said they are driven by racist motives and have slammed them as illegal.
"They are taking advantage of the people's fears and lack of information," Trad told SETimes. "When we add the lack of financial stability and the fact that Bulgaria is a poor country, we can see the results in the streets of Sofia. Ordinary people have no problem with refugees -- be they from Syria or Africa. But their fears are the perfect ground to obtain political dividends and this is what is happening at the moment."
There are many Bulgarians who spare their time and efforts to help refugees every day, Trad said. Maria Chereshova from the organisation Friends of Refugees is one of them. She said she was surprised to see how many people have answered their calls for help. The organisation already has 3,000 members and is holding actions to provide refugees with all sorts of assistance.
"I believe such actions should be sustainable and people should be educated about the actual fate and status of refugees," Chereshova told SETimes. "What we do is of humanitarian action. Our philosophy is not only to go and give them some food or clothes, but to do it all with understanding, a smile and some time to talk, because food is important, but it is not everything. Refugees need to understand that there are people who welcome them and are willing to help."
Abud Aldoks is a Syrian software engineer who arrived in the camp in Sofia's Voenna Rampa district. He came from Harmanli, where he spent one month. On his way fleeing the war, he travelled through Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and finally Bulgaria.
"I don't always feel afraid when I go out, but many Syrian people have problems, especially in the centre of the city," Aldoks told SETimes.
Still, he is grateful to the people who come to help.
"This makes us feel happy. It's good when there are Bulgarian people who come here," he said.
Trad is optimistic that "solidarity will prevail in the end."
"I see more and more people who come and help the refugees …Volunteers prove that there is another side of the coin," Trad said.
What steps do you think authorities in Bulgaria should take to protect refugees from violence? Share your thoughts in comments.