Bulgaria's asylum centres bursting at the seams as Syrian refugees enter Europe

News Stories, 17 September 2013

© UNHCR/D.Kashavelov
Syrian asylum-seekers waiting to be registered with border police at Elhovo, near Bulgaria's border with Turkey.

SOFIA, Bulgaria, September 17 (UNHCR) Increasing numbers of Syrians fleeing violence in their homeland are heading for Bulgaria and ending up in overcrowded and "dire" reception centres as the country on the edge of the European Union struggles to cope with the influx.

So far this year, Bulgaria has received about 3,000 asylum applications, mainly from the Middle East and Africa. This is three times the yearly average of the past decade. August saw a sharp rise to some 50 new arrivals (mainly Syrian families) per day compared to four a month a year earlier.

"Although overall numbers are low relative to some other European countries Bulgaria's asylum system cannot keep pace with the new arrivals," UNHCR's chief spokesperson, Melissa Fleming said on Tuesday, while adding that the three existing accommodation centres operated by the government were overcrowded and conditions were both unsafe and dire.

But she added that the refugee agency welcomed assurances from the Bulgarian government of quick action to fix the dire conditions for Syrian and other asylum-seekers. UNHCR Regional Representative for Central Europe Montserrat Feixas Vihe met Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski and other senior officials last Friday to discuss the need for new accommodation facilities to relieve overcrowding, and for asylum-seekers to be released from detention.

In the centres run by Bulgaria's State Agency for Refugees, people sleep in corridors and cook on flimsy burners in crowded dormitories. "All available spaces have been converted into dormitories from the TV and internet rooms to the child-care spaces. The shower and toilet facilities are just not enough to cope with the new pace of arrivals," said Roland Weil, UNHCR's representative in Bulgaria, adding that up to 100 people share a single bathroom while education and recreational activities are scant, and several hundred children are missing out entirely on school.

The overcrowding is straining relations among asylum-seekers, who in normal circumstances have to make ends meet on the equivalent of just over one euro a day for food, clothes, medicine and other necessities.

"We just want respect [from the management]," said one Syrian mother of two in the Pastrogor centre. The family fled from the eastern Syria region of Hassakeh in June and now share a former TV room with six other families. "The closest bathroom is downstairs," she said.

A slow asylum procedure exacerbates the situation. People typically stay in accommodation centres for a year while their refugee claims are being assessed, even though the law states that applications should be decided within six months.

"The government needs to find new alternative accommodation as soon as possible, even temporarily, to relieve pressure on the existing centres and enable those asylum-seekers currently held in detention to be released," said UNHCR's Weil.

To address the accommodation shortage, the Bulgarian authorities have to date relied on two detention centres designed to house irregular migrants awaiting deportation. In Lyubimets, close to the Turkish border, and Busmantsi on the outskirts of Sofia, asylum-seekers stay behind bars for up to three months waiting for the authorities to move them to an open centre. These detention centres are hosting numbers way beyond their capacity.

At Friday's meeting, UNHCR offered to increase technical assistance to Bulgaria in the form of training and support at every stage of the asylum process from registration to decision-making on refugee claims.

Bulgaria has received about 2,000 Syrians since the start of Syria's conflict two and half years ago. Across the European Union, some 47,000 Syrians sought asylum in the same period.

By Boris Cheshirkov in Sofia, Bulgaria

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

Syria Emergency: Urgent Appeal

You can help save the lives of thousands of refugees

Donate to this crisis

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

As world concern grows over the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians, including more than 200,000 refugees, UNHCR staff are working around the clock to provide vital assistance in neighbouring countries. At the political level, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres was due on Thursday (August 30) to address a closed UN Security Council session on Syria.

Large numbers have crossed into Lebanon to escape the violence in Syria. By the end of August, more than 53,000 Syrians across Lebanon had registered or received appointments to be registered. UNHCR's operations for Syrian refugees in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley resumed on August 28 after being briefly suspended due to insecurity.

Many of the refugees are staying with host families in some of the poorest areas of Lebanon or in public buildings, including schools. This is a concern as the school year starts soon. UNHCR is urgently looking for alternative shelter. The majority of the people looking for safety in Lebanon are from Homs, Aleppo and Daraa and more than half are aged under 18. As the conflict in Syria continues, the situation of the displaced Syrians in Lebanon remains precarious.

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

By mid-September, more than 200,000 Syrian refugees had crossed the border into Turkey. UNHCR estimates that half of them are children, and many have seen their homes destroyed in the conflict before fleeing to the border and safety.

The Turkish authorities have responded by building well-organized refugee camps along southern Turkey's border with Syria. These have assisted 120,000 refugees since the crisis conflict erupted in Syria. There are currently 12 camps hosting 90,000 refugees, while four more are under construction. The government has spent approximately US$300 million to date, and it continues to manage the camps and provide food and medical services.

The UN refugee agency has provided the Turkish government with tents, blankets and kitchen sets for distribution to the refugees. UNHCR also provides advice and guidelines, while staff from the organization monitor voluntary repatriation of refugees.

Most of the refugees crossing into Turkey come from areas of northern Syria, including the city of Aleppo. Some initially stayed in schools or other public buildings, but they have since been moved into the camps, where families live in tents or container homes and all basic services are available.

Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

Displaced inside Syria: UNHCR and its Dedicated Staff help the Needy

The violence inside Syria continues to drive people from their homes, with some seeking shelter elsewhere in their country and others risking the crossing into neighbouring countries. The United Nations estimates that up to 4 million people are in need of help, including some 2 million believed to be internally displaced.

The UN refugee agency has 350 staff working inside Syria. Despite the insecurity, they continue to distribute vital assistance in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Al Hassakeh and Homs. Thanks to their work and dedication, more than 350,000 people have received non-food items such as blankets, kitchen sets and mattresses. These are essential items for people who often flee their homes with no more than the clothes on their backs. Cash assistance has been given to more than 10,600 vulnerable Syrian families.

Displaced inside Syria: UNHCR and its Dedicated Staff help the Needy

Syria: Aid Reaches Eastern AleppoPlay video

Syria: Aid Reaches Eastern Aleppo

An agreement between the Syrian Government and the opposition allows UNHCR and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to deliver humanitarian assistance to the besieged city of Aleppo.
Jordan: Syrian Refugees' Housing CrisisPlay video

Jordan: Syrian Refugees' Housing Crisis

Hundreds of thousands of refugees living in urban areas are struggling to survive. They face rising rents, inadequate accommodation, and educational challenges for their children.
Jordan: Shahad Finds her VoicePlay video

Jordan: Shahad Finds her Voice

Four-year-old Shahad is among hundreds of thousands of Syrian children suffering from the traumatic effects of the war in Syria. After a bomb attack on her family home, she stopped speaking.