For months, a dark blue armor-plated police van has been parked outside Sofia’s only mosque, the 16th-century Banya Bashi, in the city center, a stone’s throw from the synagogue and Catholic and Eastern Orthodox cathedrals.
The four officers standing outside it, nursing polystyrene cups of hot coffee in the freezing Balkan winter, are at the front line of what is a growing crisis: a clash between the country’s natives and an influx of people forced from their homes by war or poverty.
Over the last two years, around 11,000 people from Syria, Afghanistan, Algeria, Mali and Morocco, among others, have come to Bulgaria, many through a porous border with Turkey. It is the first wave of immigration in Bulgaria’s modern history, and has come at a time of immense hardship. The country’s unemployment rate doubled from about 5 percent of the labor force in 2008 to more than 11 percent this year. In the same five-year period, the country’s GDP contracted by 5.5 percent.
The result has been a bitter right-wing backlash, with one of the main parties, Ataka, which means attack, enjoying a resurgence in its membership through championing “Bulgaria for Bulgarians.” An even more hard-line splinter group, making allegations of rape, assault and thievery by immigrants, has been organizing a civilian militia to harass and intimidate people around the center of the city, and the mosque in particular, where refugees mill around for want of anything else to do.
The organizer of the militia, or what he describes as “civilian patrols,” Boyan Rasate, told The Observer: “In the next year there will be 50,000 to 200,000 refugees in this country. We are organizing for the sake of women and children because the refugees are abusing their rights.”
One immigrant, who arrived two months ago from Israel, Mohammad Kamal, 22, said it all: “I had a woman scream at me to ‘go home.’ I’m going to next week. Israel isn’t that bad after all.”
There are no militia forces roaming the streets of Sheffield or Birmingham, but sitting on a sofa in his offices, a short walk from the Banya Bashi mosque, Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev sees clear parallels with Britain — indeed, in states across Europe — and he is deeply worried. Plevneliev, who is not a member of a political party but whose election two years ago was supported by the center-right, said: “There is something in common here — this wrong debate, which to me is playing with people’s fears or addressing people’s fears and not having an honest debate.”
He is appalled by what is happening in his country, where parliament recently voted to ban foreign nationals from buying agricultural land. And he is disturbed by all he has read and heard from Britain about what could happen when the barriers on Romanian and Bulgarian people coming to live and work in the U.K. are lifted on Jan. 1. The east Europeans will deliver a crime wave, it has been reported; they will scrounge off the benefits system and create untold trouble for Britain’s creaking welfare state, be it hospitals, schools, or indeed prisons.
Two weeks ago, leaked documents revealed that Home Secretary Theresa May wants to cap the number of EU immigrants to the U.K. and even stop people from countries with a GDP lower than 75 percent of Britain’s from coming to the country to work at all. The benefits system has been tightened so that those without work who come from abroad are blocked from claiming until three months after their arrival, and they can only claim if they prove that they can speak English.
The timing, Plevneliev says, gives the clear, but inaccurate, impression that people from Romania and Bulgaria will, first, flock in huge numbers and, second, be coming for welfare handouts. It is, he says, a cynical attempt to answer fears and anxieties whipped up by Nigel Farage’s U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) and others. He points out that Finland and Sweden, with their much more generous welfare systems, lifted barriers to Bulgarians and Romanians two years ago.
“You know what happened? Nothing,” he says. “You want to make a plan for a better future for your citizens in Great Britain. In the past 20 years immigrants in Great Britain contributed heavily to its prosperity, and that is a fact. The only thing that is important is not to listen to populist politicians who play on people’s fears but to listen to the wise men in Great Britain.
“Listen to the institutions who are giving the facts. University College London has very clear data showing that in the past 20 years, immigrants contributed 34 percent more than they took out. You guys are making profit out of this. So that is really great. Keep it like that.”
Instead, he says that David Cameron is six months ahead of the European elections, battling for votes with UKIP on their terms, damaging Britain’s internationalist reputation and in danger of writing himself into the history books as an isolationist. The debate, he says, is toxic and familiar to others in the mainstream of European politics, but, for all its familiarity, it is no less concerning.
And he now harbors worries for the safety for Bulgarians already in the UK: “What I have read in the British tabloids was beyond any imagination. There are no facts, no reason to do it, but to play with people’s fears. I don’t understand such politics, or conduct such politics.
“Bulgarians are raising a lot of questions about the democratic, tolerant and humane British society. Is it possible that you can attack in such an intolerant way a nation that did nothing? Let us remember that 77 percent of Bulgarian people living in Great Britain have a job, 72 percent of British people do, and 65 percent of non-EU immigrants. This has to tell us something.”
None of this is to say that Bulgarians will not come to the U.K. — and in their thousands, most agree. Bulgaria is deeply troubled. Endemic corruption among the political parties, media and industry was exquisitely exemplified six months ago when the socialist government appointed the 32-year-old son of a media magnate, who owns much of the newspaper and television market in Bulgaria, as its head of national security.
The decision sparked protests on the streets involving up to 100,000 people, many of whom were students. Tents still stand outside parliament where, every morning and evening, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of protesters vent their anger in the direction of the new barricades that have been erected between them and their politicians.
Sofia University has also been occupied by students who now live in its large domed auditorium, known as the Aula Magna. And many students here want to leave their country, see the world, and see if they can build a better life elsewhere. But there is also a reluctance on the part of many to give up on Bulgaria.
Adelina Dyulgerova, 20, a linguistics student from Varna on the Black Sea, who has slept in the university for a month, said: “I will have to see how Bulgaria is, but I’m involved in this protest because I don’t want to leave. I want to build my future here. I think the most disappointing thing was when the head of the university of national economics came to speak to us and said: ‘If you don’t like it, there’s the airport’. ”
Rounen Stoev, 23, a law student who has been organizing the occupation, said: “We were all talking about this last night before we went to sleep. And we don’t want to go. We want to change things here, though I worry that if things don’t then we will have to leave.”