In Bulgaria, an Example of How Refugees Need Not Be a Problem, but a Solution

Refugee children resettled in Bulgaria after the Balkan Wars. Photo: Wikipedia, Public Domain.

Balkan Wars refugees from Greece resettled in Bulgaria in 1913. Many contemporary Bulgarians are direct descendants of waves of refugees who were successfully integrated into Bulgarian society over the last two centuries. Photo: Wikipedia, Public Domain.

Refugees fleeing conflict and persecution in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere continue to follow the so-called Balkan Route from Turkey to Hungary in search of better life in Western Europe, and some European governments continue to greet them with hostility. Mainstream right-wing politicians use their presence to intimidate their constituencies, and in some countries the refugee crisis is used as an excuse for paramilitary activities.

If you happen to believe that this is the wrong approach, here's one more reason to add to your arsenal.

A recent news story by the Balkan Investigative Reporters Network (BIRN) about Bulgaria tells the story of one man that illustrates how refugees can provide solutions to some existing problems, in this case by providing talent for sectors experiencing a shortage of qualified workers.

“The Bulgarian business processing sector lacks 50,000 people. The first condition for employees is to speak one more language apart from their mother tongue, because the companies operating from Bulgaria provide services for the whole world,” Vasil Velichkov, owner of the Sofia-based Sensika company, explained to BIRN.

Educated refugees like Syrian journalist and professor of literature Elias Sulaiman, 33, help fill such gaps. He came to Bulgaria in 2013 seeking passage to Germany or Sweden, but as he spent time in the country helping other refugees as a volunteer, he began to learn about opportunities for employment in the growing IT industry there, and is now an employee of an outsourcing company. He also has started a family with local woman. A major factor of his success was his knowledge of native Arabic and Spanish.

For their part, Bulgaria's business sector managed to convince the government “to ease the procedure for non-European specialists to obtain a European blue card that gives them the right to work.” However, Sulaiman's case is relatively rare due to a lack of government outreach towards the general refugee population.

Refugee family arriving in Europe. Photo: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, CC BY-NC-ND.

An Iraqi refugee family arriving in Europe. Photo: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, CC BY-NC-ND.

A shortage of workers isn't exclusive to Bulgaria — or at least won't be as time goes on. Most European countries, including non-European Union members, have aging populations, and if things don't change, they'll need quite a few workers able to do all sorts of jobs in the near future.

Bulgaria has also seen its own citizens leave the country in droves in its recent history. Several years ago after Bulgaria joined the European Union, many workers left for the greener pastures suddenly available to them in wealthier EU countries. For instance, many Bulgarians went to the UK to work as strawberry and potato pickers or to Greece to work as hotel maids. A visitor to Bulgaria at that time would often hear the locals complaining about how all the youth and women were ‘gone.’

‘Not investing in refugees is a huge missed opportunity’

However, refugees coming to Europe aren't always being treated as potential contributing members of society.

The Bratislava Declaration, adopted on September 16 by the leaders of 27 states remaining in the EU (without the UK), uses a language reminiscent more of a state of war than a humanitarian crisis. For instance, it speaks of a “commitment today by a number of Member States to offer immediate assistance to strengthen the protection of Bulgaria's border with Turkey, and continue support to other frontline States” (emphasis added).

Refugees and other migrants remain vulnerable to mistreatment. noted that human rights groups in Hungary have raised concerns that the international community is turning a blind eye to various abuses by authorities on the Hungarian border.

Europe had its share of refugee crises during the last hundred years. Often times, the continent's governments didn't respond with empathy, in spite of moral imperatives. Many of the countries on today's Balkan Route were directly affected both as sources of exiled people and as refugee destinations after the Balkan Wars, World War I, the Holocaust, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaigns in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia.

History had also showed that in many cases, misguided bureaucratic attitudes can cause as much human suffering as downright racism and bigotry. Many of the perpetrators of abuse during the above mentioned historic events later claimed they were just blindly obeying orders and following ‘the rules.’

The Center for Legal Aid “Voice in Bulgaria” published a report on its findings about the legal and humanitarian aspects of the detentions of over 30,000 migrants and asylum seekers in 2015 and over 5,000 during the first five months of 2016. Most of the aprehended people were from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The report confirmed the existence of “routine detention practices, in most cases based rather on policies for ‘dealing’ with the increased migration flows than on individual assessment in the particular case and a necessity to impose this type of measure only in view of attaining the final goal of removal of these persons from the country.”

It also noted worrisome attitudes towards unaccompanied minors and corrupt practices during apprehension.

Stepping out of that unwelcoming mindset can be beneficial both for the refugees and the host countries.

In 2014, Melissa Fleming of the United Nations’ refugee agency gave a TED talk about the need to help the refugees rebuild their lives, instead just allowing them to survive.

Not investing in refugees is a huge missed opportunity. Leave them abandoned, and they risk exploitation and abuse, and leave them unskilled and uneducated, and delay by years the return to peace and prosperity in their countries […] The victims of war can hold the keys to lasting peace, and its the refugees who can stop the cycle of violence.

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