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1:16 am
Tue April 29, 2014

With Dogs And Batons, Bulgaria Tells Syrian Refugees To Turn Back

Originally published on Wed April 30, 2014 11:05 am

Some countries in Syria's neighborhood are feeling inundated with refugees, and countries like Greece are making it harder for them to enter the country. Now Bulgaria has followed suit, with growing reports of Syrian refugees facing violent beatings, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.

Among the poorest European states, Bulgaria was ill-prepared for the spike in refugees who came across its border last fall. The government quickly beefed up border patrols as part of a "pushback" policy designed to keep the refugees in Turkey. It's a policy that refugees and rights advocates say the border police are executing with a vengeance.

In a refugee camp just inside Bulgaria, Mohammed Haj Khalil, 35, describes his harrowing crossing with Abdullah, his 17-year-old cousin. Border guards using a police dog soon tracked them, and Khalil assumed they would be taken to register for asylum.

Instead, he found himself scrambling to cover his young cousin with his leather jacket as the dog lunged forward. Then a guard cracked Khalil on the head with a stick.

"I started feeling dizzy or confused," he says. "Then the dog started biting [Abdullah's] leg. He started screaming and I was very afraid. The dog started biting my face — my cheek was open."

Khalil points to his face. "I started bleeding from here and here. They were just watching us, four guards," Khalil says, adding that Abdullah is still traumatized by the attack, having been told that European countries have rules for treating refugees humanely.

The head of Bulgaria's border police, Chief Commissioner Zaharin Penov, told Bulgarian National Radio that his officers are not abusive.

"The border authorities have been informed that the refugees were provocative and aggressive, throwing rocks at cars and personnel," said Penov. "Money was offered to the Bulgarian officers. There was no physical contact with Bulgarian officials."

Syrians Say They Will Keep Trying

The Turkish border city of Edirne is flanked on one side by Greece, and by Bulgaria on the other. Edirne's budget hotels are filling up with Syrians, Afghans and other refugees with the scars to show for their attempts to get into Bulgaria.

Maryam Othman, a Palestinian Syrian from the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, sits in a garden with three of her six sons. After her husband was killed in Yarmouk, two of her boys made it to the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, and so she gathered her other sons and headed to join them.

She says the first guards who stopped them were friendly, but soon came another unit with a much rougher agenda. She says they beat the children unconscious and then herded them back to the border.

"They said, 'Here's Turkey, here is Bulgaria. Don't ever dare to cross this line again!' " she recounts.

Othman lifts her son Ahmed's shirt to show the dark bruises still visible on his side and back.

Human Rights Watch Criticizes Bulgarian Policy

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 170 migrants who attempted to get into Bulgaria after the new tougher policy was enacted. The report details appalling conditions at refugee centers and abysmal stories of beatings and separated families.

Human Rights Watch's refugee rights program director Bill Frelick says Bulgaria's brutal success in stanching the refugee flow highlights the flaws in the European Union's supposedly uniform refugee rules, designed to ensure that refugees get equal treatment wherever they enter.

"The reality, of course, is quite different," he says. "And the conditions of reception were really horrible that we saw — the lack of processing of people for their asylum claims at that time."

As for the European Union's response, Frelick says, "While the EU did come in and actually did provide resources and help, what really took place was this brutal enforcement action which prevented more people from entering the country."

Frelick says the EU's system puts tremendous pressure on front-line member states such as Bulgaria and Greece to halt the refugee flows despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that most migrants he interviewed consider Bulgaria a way station en route to wealthier countries such as Germany or Sweden.

One question now is whether Bulgaria's violent response to refugees will continue to deter them. For her part, Maryam Othman says she and her wounded sons will try again, probably soon.

Jodi Hilton contributed reporting from Bulgaria for this story.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

The civil war in Syria has forced millions of people from their homes. They're trying to escape violence but some have only found more of it. Syria's neighbors have been inundated with refugees, so many have tried to move on to other countries. And that includes some trying to go from Turkey to Bulgaria. Now a report from Human Rights Watch finds migrants facing violent beatings, following the enactment of a new Bulgarian policy, to push refugees back into Turkey.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Bulgaria is among the poorest European member states, and was ill-prepared for the spike in refugees that came across its border last fall. Parliament quickly beefed up border patrols as part of a push back policy, a policy that refugees and rights advocates say the police are executing with a vengeance.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)

KENYON: As Islamic prayers ring out in a refugee camp just inside Bulgaria, 35-year-old Mohammed Haj Khalil describes his crossing with his 17-year-old cousin. Border guards soon tracked them using a police dog and Khalil assumed they would be taken to register for asylum. Instead, he found himself scrambling to cover his young cousin with his leather jacket as the dog lunged forward. Then a guard cracked Khalil on the head with a stick.

MOHAMMED HAJ KHALIL: Then I started feeling dizzy or confused. Then the dog started biting him from his leg and he started to screaming. And I was very afraid. The dog started biting me from my face. My cheek was open. I started bleeding from here and here. They was just watching us, four guards.

KENYON: Khalil his cousin is still traumatized by the attack, having been told that European countries have rules for treating refugees humanely.

The head of Bulgaria's border police, Zaharin Penov, told Bulgarian national radio that his officers are not abusive.

ZAHARIN PENOV: (Through Translator) The border authorities have been informed that the refugees were provocative and aggressive, throwing rocks at cars and personnel. Money was offered to the Bulgarian officers. There was no physical contact with Bulgarian officials.

KENYON: Syrians stuck on the Turkish side of the border say such comments are false, and they have the scars to prove it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KENYON: In the Turkish border city of Edirne, Turks were in a festive mood on a recent afternoon, turning out for a local food festival. Flanked by Greece on one side and Bulgaria on the other, Edirne's budget hotels are filling up with Syrians, Afghans and other refugees who have been repelled.

Maryam Othman, a Palestinian Syrian from the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, sits in a garden with three of her six sons. After her husband was killed in Yarmouk, two of her boys made it to the Bulgarian capital, and she gathered her other sons and headed for the border. She says the first guards who stopped them were friendly, but soon came another unit with a much rougher agenda.

MARYAM OTHMAN: (Through Translator) They were beating the children. They beat them until they were unconscious. I tried to put water on their faces but they knocked the water away. They left us back at the border, and said: Here's Turkey, here is Bulgaria. Don't ever dare to cross this line again.

KENYON: She lifts her son Ahmed's shirt to show the dark bruises still visible on his side and back.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 150 migrants who attempted to get into Bulgaria since the crackdown began. The report details appalling conditions at refugee centers and abysmal stories of beatings and separated families. Bill Frelick, with Human Rights Watch, says Bulgaria's brutal success in stanching the refugee flow highlights the flaws in the European Union's supposedly uniform rules for dealing with refugees.

BILL FRELICK: The reality, of course, is quite different and the conditions of reception were really horrible that we saw; the lack of processing of people for their asylum claims at that time, and then the response, while the EU came in and actually did provide resources and help. What really took place was this brutal enforcement action which prevented more people from entering the country.

KENYON: Frelick says the EU's system puts tremendous pressure on frontline member states such as Bulgaria and Greece to halt the refugee flows, despite or perhaps because of the fact that most of the migrants he interviewed consider Bulgaria a way station, en route to wealthier countries such as Germany or Sweden.

The question now is whether Bulgaria's violent response to refugees will continue to deter them. For her part, Maryam Othman says she and her wounded sons will try again, probably soon.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.