Bulgaria tries to stem rising migrant influx at its borders

Reuters News
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Posted: Aug 19, 2015 8:42 AM

By Tsvetelia Tsolova

LESOVO, Bulgaria (Reuters) - Bulgaria has beefed up its border police, installed cameras and motion censors, and is extending a security fence that will cover 160 km (100 miles) of its border with Turkey, and yet more and more migrants keep arriving.

About 25,000 people have applied for refugee status in Bulgaria in the past two years, official data shows, as many as in the previous two decades combined.

From Syria or Afghanistan, many are fleeing conflict and poverty and hope to use the Balkan country as a gateway to a more prosperous life elsewhere in Europe.

One day in August, a long line of trucks waited under the scorching sun at a checkpoint in Lesovo, which lies on the border with Turkey. Police searched each truck for stowaways using cameras, oxygen and heart beat detectors.

"We have detained some 750 illegal migrants, hidden in trucks since the start of the year," said Nikolai Dimitrov, senior inspector at the checkpoint.

Though not on the frontline of the migrant crisis like neighboring Greece and Hungary, Bulgaria, the poorest member of the European Union, is growing anxious as the flow of arrivals keeps rising.

At Lesovo, there were no scenes of migrants scrambling onto trucks or scuffling with police, the likes of which were seen in France or on some Greek islands this year. The number of migrants arriving in Bulgaria is still comparatively small.

New data the EU's border control agency showed 21,000 refugees landed on Greek shores last week alone. Nearly 340,000 migrants arrived in the EU so far this year, a 175 percent rise on the same period last year.

However, for many in Bulgaria, with its population of 7.2 million, there are fears the country will be unable to cope with more migrants, even if most of them do not want to stay but will try to make it to richer countries such as Germany or Sweden.

Bulgaria depends on EU financial support to receive and provide shelter, medical care and food for over 3,500 refugees housed in camps, and has already used 80 percent of the 4.2 million euros it received to that end.

"Every weekend one village enters Bulgaria -- about 200-300 people. And this is every week," said Dimitrov.

"DESPERATE SITUATION"

Bulgaria already dispatched hundreds of additional police officers to guard the border and erected a 30 km fence to deter people smugglers. The fence is being extended by another 130 km.

But attempts to cross into Bulgaria are on the rise. The authorities detained over 4,400 people who crossed illegally into its territory in the first six months of this year, two and half times more than in the same period a year ago, according to the interior ministry.

Human rights groups and the United Nations' refugee agency UNHCR have criticized the border fence, saying that barriers will not stop the refugee inflows. Hungary is also building a security fence on its border with Serbia.

"The barriers, not only in Bulgaria, are only increasing the risks to the people in a desperate situation, fleeing from war - but force them to put their lives in danger in the hands of smugglers and human traffickers," said Boris Cheshirkov, spokesman for the Bulgarian office of UNHCR.

(Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)