People demonstrate during a march in support of sovereign Ukraine in Sofia, Bulgaria, 24 March 2022.
© EPA-EFE/VASSIL DONEV   |   People demonstrate during a march in support of sovereign Ukraine in Sofia, Bulgaria, 24 March 2022.

A year after the outbreak of war, Bulgaria still lacks a clear strategy for integrating Ukrainian refugees

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Almost a year after the beginning of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, those escaping the horrors of the war and finding themselves in Bulgaria continue to rely more on the enthusiasm of the activists rather than on any clear state strategy on how they can be integrated in the society. The political turmoil in Bulgaria – reflected by the country’s two year stalemate and unending election cycle, which is increasing the power of pro-Kremlin President Rumen Radev, who on more than one occasion got to name interim cabinets – has also obstructed any progress or the adoption of solid social measures.

On February 1, the Ministerial Council of Bulgaria extended the temporary protection status for Ukrainian citizens for one year after criticisms that Radev’s interim cabinet is not making enough on securing the rights of refugees. Previously, in October, Bulgaria received nearly 100 million euro through the European Commission’s CARE initiative, but there has been little to no public info about the ways the fund has been used. Clear strategies on how the Ukrainians can be more easily integrated are so far lacking.

“Could one receive Bulgarian citizenship after receiving international protection status?”, “Are humanitarian protection and international protection different acts?”, “Can I work and study while under protection?” These are some of the questions that Ukrainians fleeing the war were asking during a Q&A online session organised by the NGO Mission Wings Foundation, based in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria.

“Ukrainians are actively researching what rights they have in terms of freedom of movement, and if they lose any international rights if they return. There are people who have settled in Bulgaria and are not looking back but some are planning to return to their homeland. There’s a third group which is looking into ways to move elsewhere in Europe”, Diana Ivanova of Mission Wings Foundation told Veridica.

Why Ukrainians are leaving Bulgaria

By January the 3rd, nearly 150 000 Ukrainian refugees had entered Bulgaria, but only about a third of them stayed in the country.  

Despite the shrinking numbers, the pressure on the frontline activists remains permanent. 

“We’re helping around 200 people per month and we’re focused on securing humanitarian aid to elderly people over 65 years and mothers with children below the age of 5”, according to the organisers behind the “Ukrainian Home” (Український Дім), a small community centre running since 2017 in the seaside town of Varna, the third biggest in the country and one of the first who experienced incoming refugee groups after the start of the invasion. From a place known only within the Ukrainian diaspora in the town, after February 24 2022 it became one of the most important hubs for administrative information, medical help, distributing clothes and food through shelters, English and Bulgarian language courses. The team of Ukrainian Home, which is made up of Ukrainian and Bulgarian volunteers, recently restarted its cultural events.

In the first weeks of the war, most people coming to the Ukrainian Home’s doors were from Odesa, followed by refugees from the occupied territories. Recent groups have been coming from Dnipro. “Those people who have the means managed to find accommodation and settle. However, many people, predominantly from the occupied zones, have limited financial resources. Some are still being placed in hotels, others decided to return. Despite all the troubles with the electricity and the heating during the winter, some preferred to go back home.”

The work of the volunteers has been essential when the state response was lacking. Initially, those refugees who could not find a place to stay were sheltered in hotels around the Bulgarian seaside, as most of them were empty before the start of the summer season, with the state covering 15 leva (7.6 euro) of expenses per person.

By early June, as the tourist season was nearing, the refugees were facing eviction, some being offered to temporarily stay in the so-called “buffer centre” for refugees in Elhovo and state-owned military bases - a move followed by numerous complaints from the refugees for bad living conditions. The decision was also criticised by NGOs and activists as it’s another form of displacement, troubling those with children already enrolled in local schools. Hotels again became shelters for incoming Ukrainians in the late autumn and the winter, with activists making further rounds in distributing food, clothes and medicines under little promise of any state help.

By mid-November, as around 11,000 Ukrainian refugees were accommodated in hotels, the interim government wanted to cancel the financial help given to the hotels for hosting the refugees. After protests, the programme was extended until February 24 (ironically the end date coincides with the first year anniversary of the war). It remains to be seen whether the program will continue after this date. People who have found accommodation on their own are not eligible for financial aid from the state (in contrast to Romania, for example).

“Financial aid to the hotel owners will likely continue, although by what we’ve seen so far decisions are taken by the government at the last possible minute”, according to Krassimir Kanev, Chair of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a vocal critic to the slow response of the authorities regarding the needs of those fleeing the war. “What is more important is that the current situation creates an air of constant uncertainty both within the refugees and the hotel owners. This is the reason why so many decided to leave Bulgaria”, Kanev told Veridica.

The war in Ukraine has deepened the political crisis in Bulgaria, a country where pro-Russians still have are still influential

No one seems to be concerned about what the state could do to improve the integration of the Ukrainian citizens in Bulgaria; the topic is overshadowed by the continuous turmoil of local politics and the topic is ignored on the political scene.

Bulgaria, along with Romania, was denied acceptance into the Schengen zone of unrestricted movement and is meanwhile working on adopting the euro currency in 2024 - a point of heavy discussions between the parties and a factor for rising anti-EU sentiments among the nationalist voters.

The country is heading to new snap elections on April 2, the fifth general poll in Bulgaria in two years, and it will be followed by mayoral elections later in 2023. And the current political situation has been influenced by the war in Ukraine.

For a moment, Bulgaria seemed to be getting out of the logjam that blocked it in 2020-2021, with Kiril Petkov’s reformist coalition at the helm. The coalition was led by Petkov’s “We Continue the Change” party, but it also featured the pro-Kremlin Bulgarian Socialist Party. Opinions towards the war – supporting Ukraine or trying to keep out in order to preserve the relationship with Russia – drew lines not only in the society and Parliament, but also within the coalition, which was ousted in June 2022. Former PM Boyko Borissov’s GERB party came first in the snap elections held in October, but this only led to another unfruitful cycle of coalition talks.

With Rumen Radev forming his own version of a Presidential republic, undermining an already fragmented parliament which can’t agree on a coalition, and increasingly dysfunctional institutions, Bulgaria is heading for a particular gridlock. And that is taking a toll both on the quality of life of people living in the country, and on the prospects of those who are arriving.

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