Huddled for warmth around trash-fed campfires, the refugees eat their scant dinner: a can of beans or green peas and a few slices of bread, if they are lucky, if a relief organization somehow managed that day to get through the locked gates and barbed wire of bureaucracy. The gaunt faces of men, women and children glow in the flickering flames, eyes hollowed out by hunger and cold and the fresh, flesh-searing memories of the Syrian war. Though the weather is still unusually balmy for early November, temperatures drop rapidly at night and the first snow is bound to arrive any time now. People here thought they had escaped hell, survived, washed up on the promised shores of the European Union, shipwrecked but alive, only to find out they have climbed one circle up, into the hell called Bulgaria.
Their meager meal done, the refugees prepare for a fitful sleep. Some of them drag their bodies into the mess hall of the abandoned military barracks, cavernous shells of bare concrete long fallen into disrepair, but jam-packed now with folding beds and old mattresses. Others go to the makeshift trailer park, occupied by 80 new trailers, deceptively white and gleaming on the outside, but lacking running water, electricity and even beds. The most unlucky ones, the recent "over-capacity" arrivals, mass in wobbly army tents, fifteen to twenty people per tent, unheated and dark.
This is a refugee camp (which the author personally visited) on the outskirts of Harmanli, a small town in southeastern Bulgaria, 50 kilometers from the Turkish border and 250 from the capital Sofia. Faced with a growing wave of Syrian refugees making their way across Turkey, Bulgarian authorities have been caught completely unprepared. With over 8,000 migrants and asylum seekers so far this year crossing the border into Bulgaria and a total available capacity of 3,350 beds in asylum and reception centers, the government has been scrambling to find new locations to house them. Harmanli's former military barracks, a sprawling post-apocalyptic complex of abandoned, rundown buildings, is one of them.
But even by the standards of Bulgaria, EU's poorest nation, Harmanli's refugee camp is a disgrace, like giving away one's stash of rotten food and calling it charity. Lack of adequate shelter and basic amenities are only some of the major problems. Since garbage collection is virtually nonexistent here, and the few squat toilets already overflow, trash and excrement pile up everywhere, creating the perfect breeding ground for epidemics of all sorts. Initially planned for 450 people, it now houses over 1,000, many of them children and infants. The Bulgarian government's sluggishness in processing asylum applications - a process that can sometimes take more than a year - only exacerbates the situation and leaves refugees stranded in the monstrous land of bureaucracy, with little information of their future.
Worst of all, none of the residents in Harmanli's camp are allowed to leave the grounds, locked up behind gates and fences guarded by scores of police. With no direct access to food or medicine, they have come to rely on the intermittent kindness of the state and the random giveaways of charities and volunteer organizations. In effect, these people have become prisoners for the crime of seeking asylum, contrary to EU directives and Bulgarian law, which guarantee them freedom of movement and "a dignified standard of living." Closed-type detention centers, run by the Ministry of the Interior, are reserved for illegal immigrants who have no credible grounds for seeking asylum, not for the Syrian victims of war and other refugees. Pressed, however, by increasingly popular anti-immigrant sentiments and vehement opposition of local authorities to provide shelters on their respective municipalities, the Bulgarian government has now started interning whole families of asylum seekers.
And this is just the beginning. The Bulgarian Minister of the Interior, Tzvetelin Yovchev, has now proposed that nearly all shelters run by the State Agency for Refugees should become closed-type detention centers. Europe's internment camps are already here.