Bulgaria under fire over anti-refugee border fence

GOLYAM DERVENT, Bulgaria (AFP) - Overwhelmed by an influx of mostly Syrian immigrants, Bulgaria has taken steps to secure its EU border - including building a barbed-wire fence - but now faces criticism from rights groups.

The 30-km fence, standing 3m high and fortified with razor wire coils, was completed this week.

Covering the least visible section of Bulgaria's 275km border with Turkey, it aims to stem a flow of refugees that saw more than 11,000 people enter the country illegally last year - 10 times the annual figure before the Syrian conflict.

The sudden influx caused a humanitarian crisis in Bulgaria, already the poorest member of the EU, as asylum seekers were crammed into deserted army barracks and tents in the middle of winter with no heating, basic sanitation or food.

But the small Balkan country's attempts to tackle the problem have also been a matter of concern, rights agencies say.

Amnesty International condemned Bulgaria and Greece - another EU neighbour of Turkey, which has become a key transit point for Syrian refugees to Europe - for repeatedly rejecting refugees.

"In their determination to seal off their borders, the European Union and its member states are putting the lives and rights of refugees and migrants at risk," it said in a report last week.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has also appealed to EU states "to ensure access to their territory... to ensure fair and efficient asylum procedures."

Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev noted recently that police officers on the border "manage to prevent the entry of an average 150-200 persons per day." "We are on the EU's external border and we're supposed to protect it from illegal immigrants," the head of the state agency for refugees, Mr Nikolay Chirpanliev, told AFP on Wednesday.

Construction of the fence began in October, at the height of the refugee crisis, and Bulgaria increased its police presence along the border to prevent trespassing.

Compared with a rate of 2,000 per month between October and December 2013, between 300 and 400 people now enter the country illegally every month, Mr Chirpanliev said.

Lacking identification documents, most asylum seekers cannot enter through regular border crossings and have to brave remote terrains to enter Bulgaria illegally.

But even those with documents are often turned away at the checkpoints, leaving them no other option than to try the illegal route, rights groups said.

On the bright side, conditions in the country's seven reception facilities have "improved greatly" since last year, according to Mr Boris Cheshirkov, UNHCR's spokesman in Bulgaria.

Visits by AFP to two shelters saw insulated and newly painted rooms, showers and toilets.

Swifter refugee status procedures have also helped ease overcrowding: the number of immigrants living in shelters in May was less than half the 4,000 in November, according to the state refugee agency.

But the more than 4,500 who have been accorded "humanitarian status" and now live outside the camps are not allowed to leave Bulgaria for another EU member state.

And integration remains a major issue, Mr Cheshirkov told AFP, amid government plans to offer Bulgarian language courses, help refugees find jobs and send children to Bulgarian schools.

The UNHCR and other international human rights groups have repeatedly criticised Bulgaria for pouring 9.0 million leva (S$7.75 million) into building its border fence instead of spending the money on integration.

Mr Rasheed Jamil, a 35-year-old Syrian who arrived almost a year ago and now has humanitarian status, told AFP that he would be unable to pay his rent in Stara Zagora - a town in central Bulgaria - without the support of relatives and friends who send money.

"I try to find a job but I cannot... There are whole families who cannot pay rent and buy food for their children and they try to get back in the shelters to survive," he said.