Two months after the commencement of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine, Adelina Banakieva, a volunteer from Sofia, does not know the exact number of Ukrainian refugees for whom she has provided shelter and support. “At the moment there are 26 people, adults, without the children. I don‘t know how many cats and dogs there are,” she said.
For years she has been working in Bulgaria to help children with disabilities and their mothers, which is why she faces some of the most serious cases among those fleeing the war in Ukraine - children with cerebral palsy and epilepsy. She sends these cases abroad, because in Bulgaria there are no mechanisms to ensure adequate treatment for them, nor opportunities for their parents to start work. And she does this alone, without the help of institutions. There is help from donors, volunteers and the media. “I have the feeling that I am driving along a motorway and I don’t have time to look at the navigation and I don’t know where I am going. That‘s how it is for all of us volunteers at the moment,” Adelina commented.
As in many other countries, in Bulgaria it was volunteers and civil society organisations that were the first to welcome the unprecedented stream of refugees caused by the war against Ukraine. As fast as lightning, the Bulgarian citizens organised themselves, opened their homes to the Ukrainians and began to provide them with transport to the borders of the country and from the Ukrainian border regions. With the help of businesses and the non-governmental sector, they took on the provision of humanitarian and psychological support, child care, cultural and entertainment activities to bring a drop of normality in the new daily life of people seeking protection in our country. While this could be considered normal in the first days of the crisis, given the greater flexibility and adaptability of the civil sector, in the third month after the start of hostilities, weariness and dissatisfaction can be observed among the volunteers with the heavy-handed response of the institutions.
According to data from the Council of Ministers, published on the official government portal in support of Ukrainian refugees, as of April 18th, nearly 195,000 Ukrainian citizens had crossed the borders of the country, and just over 91,000 had chosen to stay here (35,000 of them children). The published data also shows that over 50,000 Ukrainian citizens are accommodated in hotels or state and local departmental buildings under the Programme for the Use of Humanitarian Aid for Displaced Persons from Ukraine, which entered into force in mid-March. This means that more than a third of the refugee flow from Ukraine has been taken in by Bulgarian citizens.
However, the uncontrolled private housing of refugees, mostly mothers with children, involves risks, such as human trafficking, sexual and labour exploitation, and homelessness, says Diana Dimova. She is the founder and chairman of „Mission Wings”, an organisation that supports the most vulnerable groups in Bulgarian society. She herself has faced several similar cases since the beginning of the crisis, helping Ukrainian women to be accommodated in sheltered housing. Yet, the national aid programme to accommodate refugees is in force until the end of May, and at the moment the government has no plans to extend it. It provides the places for accommodation with 40 BGN (approx. 20€) per day per refugee for shelter and food.
From the very beginning, the programme has been the subject of criticism. On the one hand, it legitimises only business and state property as beneficiaries of financial support, whilst the programme does not address the expenses of volunteers, who provide for the needs of refugees out of their own budgets. On the other hand, it cannot be sustained due to the upcoming summer tourist season.
Most of the Ukrainians are indeed accommodated in hotels on the Black Sea coast because of the large number of beds, but also due to the fact that they themselves know the Bulgarian seaside resorts as tourists and prefer to opt for the familiar. The fact that there are substantial Russian and Ukrainian-speaking communities in the region of Varna and Burgas, which provide great support to newcomers, should not be overlooked. However, this is leading to the overcrowding of coastal towns and resorts, which do not have the capacity to offer the health, social and educational services necessary for tens of thousands of mothers with children.
“We are facing a humanitarian disaster. At the end of May the tourist season begins and the accommodation plan expires. The government is thinking of taking these people to the winter resorts. Is this what we are going to do this with these people, drive them to the sea and to ski, and change them every six months? These are traumatised children, people who do not know what to do, or where to go, with many different needs,” commented Diana Dimova.
The cabinet has not yet announced plans about how or where the more than 50,000 people along the Black Sea coast should be relocated. According to Krassimira Velichkova, adviser to the departmental Deputy Prime Minister Kalina Konstantinova, data is currently being collected on the available positions in departmental bases of state-owned enterprises and companies to which Ukrainians will be redirected.
Currently, the new government find themselves in a situation in which they have to build a refugee policy from scratch. “We are not just in an emergency situation that would be difficult for anyone to cope with, and this is not because the systems do not work, but because we often face fierce opposition from all around,” admits Krassimira Velichkova. Simultaneously, the government is currently working on drastic changes in legislation in various areas to ensure the most simplified procedure for Ukrainian refugees to “stand on their own two feet”, and receive social support and health rights, because at the moment they have access only to hospital treatment. “Institutions are slow machines, it takes time to write everything,” she points out.
In 2021, the Borisov-3 cabinet adopted a new National Migration Strategy (2021-2025). It is noteworthy that the title of the old one was the National Strategy for Migration, Asylum and Integration (2015-2020), and in the new words such as “asylum and integration” are no longer present. In reality, however, the effect of both strategies has been non-existent, as no action plan and financial framework has been voted on. The result is the eighth „zero” year for integration in Bulgaria, according to a report published in the Asylum Information Database (AIDA).
Despite the more positive attitude towards the refugees who flee from Russian aggression, the approach to them in social terms does not differ much from that towards people who have fled conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. Recipients of temporary protection have access to one-time financial assistance from the Social Assistance Agency of up to BGN 375 (approx. 190€), for which in practice they wait about two months.
The government does not provide them with other forms of financial support, expecting them to enter the labour market as quickly as possible. According to the Minister of Innovation and Growth Daniel Lorer, employers have announced 150,000 vacancies for Ukrainians in the sectors of IT, transport, tourism, etc., a number that Atanaska Todorova of CITUB, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria considers inflated. “Where are these vacancies - no one can answer us,” she explains. “We can say that 1,000 people have started work - out of 83,000 who have stayed in the country. [The interview was taken on April 13 – author’s note] This is a very small percentage, given that they have the legal opportunity to work and are facilitated, compared to other refugees,” she added. The salary is also a problem, since, according to the trade unionist, most of the jobs offered are paying minimum wage. This means that refugees, mostly woman with one or more children, must cover their rent and support their families with only BGN 710 (approx. 360€) per month.
In addition to these challenges, it is not clear how the issue of childcare for thousands of Ukrainian children will be settled, so that their mothers can work, given the shortage of places in municipal nurseries and kindergartens for Bulgarian families as well. Access to education is also a challenge due to problems with the vaccination cards of Ukrainian children and the language barrier. The Ministry of Education and Science has already announced that the education system can accommodate up to 60,000 children.
The question of what we will do if several hundred thousand come to our country in the coming months remains unanswered. “We have no policy for them. We don’t have a policy for anything,” commented Adelina Banakieva, the volunteer from Sofia.
Government Refugee Adviser Krassimira Velichkova does not deny that the state has not demonstrated the desired results in welcoming Ukrainian refugees. At the same time, she recognises as an achievement the fact that 80 percent of Ukrainian citizens accommodated in the country have
already received temporary protection - a fairly high percentage for the EU as a whole. Of the available five centres of the State Agency for Refugees at the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, documents are currently being processed at 175 points in the country. For her, the decision to initially house Ukrainian families in hotels in resorts was the right one, because the other alternative was tent camps.
Volunteer Adelina Banakieva is convinced that the volunteers are already at the limits of their strengths and capabilities and that it is high time for the state to perform its role. “What is being shown is that we can’t take care of these people. We rely on volunteers and thank them very much. I don‘t want you to thank me. I want you to set me free. I have turned my back on my job, my family and my child, who is a minor, to do the work of the state!” she said.
“Mission Wings” chairman Diana Dimova shares the opinion that currently about 75 percent of the burden of welcoming and caring for Ukrainians is provided by citizens and volunteers. “Institutions can’t just throw their hands up in the air and say: ‘I don‘t know, get well!’ I see this everywhere, all round the country,” she said. Despite the pressure and the disappointment due to the weak institutional response, she is optimistic that the current crisis could bring about a qualitative change for all refugees and migrants in Bulgaria. “I was very upset about all the little battles we failed to win for the ‘bad refugees’ from the south. But at one point I changed my mind and said to myself that this situation is very convenient. (...). We have no better opportunity to change policies and to change the situation for all people,” she said with conviction.
This article was first published as FES Briefing on the website of FES Bulgaria.
Maria Cheresheva is a freelance reporter and radio host based in Sofia. She is a stringer for the German public service television broadcaster ZDF. In her work, she focuses on social and political affairs, human rights and migration. Her work has been featured in a number of international outlets, including Balkan Insight, OCCRP, Deutsche Welle, BBC, Ethical Journalism Network. As a former Bulgarian correspondent of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, she has worked on a series of cross-border investigations, focused mainly on arms trafficking.
Having a BA in European Studies from the Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, Maria is one of the founders of the Bulgarian chapter of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), an international press freedom group. AEJ-Bulgaria works for supporting free, independent and ethical journalism in the country.