More than 6,000 refugees from the war in Syria have moved into Bulgaria over the past year, looking for a better life, perhaps permanently.
Many of them initially left Syria for safety from the war and crossed into Turkey, where they had been staying in refugee camps, explains Amr Al-Azm, a professor of Middle East history at Shawnee State University.
“Having been in these camps for three years now in some cases, they seemed to have given up hope, and decided they wish to seek a better future for themselves. And so they have started to head north and west, “ says Al-Azm, who has just returned from a visit to refugee camps in Bulgaria. The refugees left Turkey and crossed into Bulgaria.
“What’s interesting about the refugees in Bulgaria is the fact that they are mostly Kurdish, rather than Syrian Arabs,” says Al-Azm.
"The Bulgarian population was initially quite welcoming," he says. "Normal citizens were going to the border areas offering food and clothes. Some Bulgarians even opened their homes.”
But as the number of refugees grew, the attitude started to shift. The Bulgarian system became overwhelmed. And some Bulgarians started claiming the refugees were taking scarce resources and questioning how long the refugees would be staying in the country.
“Some of the more right-wing parties began to use this situation to promote themselves,” says Al-Azm. “One of these nationalist groups is Ataka ['Attack']. They have posters all over the streets of Sofia and they promote a very xenophobic agenda, particularly against Syrian immigrants.”
The Bulgarian government is now restricting the number of Syrians allowed into the country. The country is a member of the European Union, which is also working to control the flow of migrants.
Al-Azm, who is himself Syrian-born, is worried. He says the exodus is a sign that Syrian refugees are beginning to lose any hope of returning. “They’re all very young, in their twenties, and they no longer seek a future for themselves in Syria.”