UNHCR chief urges Europe to help Bulgaria cope with Syrian refugee influx

News Stories, 22 November 2013

© UNHCR/A.Rummery
High Commissioner Guterres and Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva talk with Syrian refugees at the Vrazhdebna reception centre in Sofia.

SOFIA, Bulgaria, November 22 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres pledged on Friday to help Bulgaria cope with an influx of Syrian refugees and called on other European Union countries to help shoulder more of the burden.

Guterres, speaking at a joint press conference with Bulgaria's Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski, announced that UNHCR would launch a programme to help Bulgaria meet the needs of several thousand refugees.

He said this would include building up the capacity of the State Agency for Refugees; deploying UNHCR staff or partners to help the government speed up the processing of refugee applications; and providing aid to meet the most pressing needs of the Syrian refugees. UNHCR will send a technical team to Bulgaria next week to assess the needs and decide on what kind of practical support is required.

Growing numbers of Syrian refugees have been making their way to Bulgaria via Turkey in recent months, but the country is ill-prepared or equipped to deal with the influx. Many of the Syrians are living in squalid conditions in hastily opened reception centres without sufficient food, warmth, shelter or access to health care.

"We cannot forget that these people have suffered enormously and it's totally unacceptable that they go on suffering once they reach the European Union," Guterres said earlier Friday after meeting Syrian refugees at the Vrazhdebra reception centre on the outskirts of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. "It is a European responsibility to receive these people and to give them the kind of hospitality and solidarity they dramatically need," added the High Commissioner.

During a tour of the crowded former school, Guterres and Kristalina Georgieva, the European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, talked to the mainly ethnic Kurdish refugees about the conditions and their concerns.

Refugees spoke about the long delays in the processing of their asylum claims and the difficulty of surviving on an allowance of about one euro per day. Some were worried about xenophobia, while one tearful woman feared being returned to Syria if she did not receive asylum soon.

One family told Guterres and Georgieva that they had fled the violence in Syria two months ago and reached Bulgaria from Turkey after a four-hour hike through thick forest. Now they share a former classroom with two other families.

"What about our future? What will happen to us?," 41-year-old Fatma asked Guterres, echoing the thoughts of many of the refugees. "You have suffered already a lot, but you have to have a bit more patience," said Guterres, later adding that UNHCR would work with the authorities to improve the situation. "In Bulgaria, the facilities for reception of asylum-seekers clearly need improvement, but we were pleased to see progress already made," said Commissioner Georgieva. "I am confident that, with cooperation between Bulgaria and UNCHCR and with assistance from the European Union, the asylum procedures will speed up," she added.

The Vrazhdebna reception facility is one of seven accommodation centres for asylum-seekers in Bulgaria and currently hosts some 400 people, mostly Syrian Kurds.

At Friday's press conference, Guterres said European solidarity was vital in dealing with the growing refugee crisis more than 2.2 million Syrians have fled their country, with most seeking shelter in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Growing numbers are now trying to reach Europe by sea or land routes.

"It is very important that European countries all over the continent keep their borders open and [provide] adequate assistance," said the UNHCR chief, who also called on the Bulgarian media to show responsibility when reporting on the Syrians. "Refugees are not terrorists. They are the first victims of terror, the ones who suffered more because of terrorism," he said.

Guterres also discussed the new cooperation plan with Prime Minister Oresharski and other top officials. He also met President Rosen Plevneliev.

Bulgaria has received more than 8,000 asylum-seekers to date this year, compared to an annual average of 1,000 over the past decade. They include an estimated 5,000 Syrians and just over 4,100 of the total are living in government-run reception centres. The rest stay in private accommodation, having waived their rights to material assistance while their refugee claims are being decided.

By Ariane Rummery in Sofia, Bulgaria




UNHCR country pages

The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

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

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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

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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

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