Djaved says he has learned that you can haggle with a policeman for anything in Sofia. At 10.15 on the morning we met it was already over 30ºC, but we went for a walk anyway. I grew up wandering these streets after school. Yuch Bunar, as the area near the Central Market Hall was once called, has traditionally been the home of migrants, Jews, traders, musicians. It is the most culturally and historically dense part of the city, and the buildings haven’t changed much since the late 19th century. They haven’t been intentionally preserved – just left undisturbed. The area has a synagogue, a mosque, one Catholic and two Orthodox churches, all working, all in one square mile, all peeling stucco in different shades of ochre, just minutes away from Parliament Square, where the buildings are in pale grey stone: the council of ministers, the presidential palace, the national bank.
Under communism, migration to Bulgaria from outside the USSR and its satellites was largely non-existent, and certainly not talked about. Difference was not only not tolerated, but punishable. For the past twenty years, Yuch Bunar – a name people no longer use – has been home to Sofia’s largest population of migrants. Djaved is one of them. He left Afghanistan when he was 14, alone, to escape the civil war following the collapse of Mohammad Najibullah’s Soviet-backed government. His father was a soldier, educated in Russia. Djaved had wanted to go to art school, ‘but there was no time.’ He now works mainly in construction, but carpet-making is his favourite of all the odd jobs he has had to do. Bulgaria is the lowest ranked of the 31 countries on the Migrant Integration Policy Index, with a particularly poor showing on education. The country has a long history of excluding its Roma population.
Since 2013, when migrants started to arrive en masse, escaping the wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, the Bulgarian governments (there have been three in two years) have opted for a policy of neglect. There are more than 7000 migrants with either refugee or humanitarian status living in the country, the first point of entry to the EU for many. The State Agency for Refugees, with some financial aid from the EU and support from charities and NGOs, runs six refugee centres, housing more than 4000 people. Everyone else is left to fend for themselves. Last month, the European Commission said it would give Bulgaria €4 million to help with the integration of 800 refugees. But there are also countless illegal immigrants, like Djaved. Without papers, he has no right to education, healthcare or employment; he can’t leave the country, and even if he managed, he couldn’t come back. ‘I only have the right to live. But what kind of life is this?’
He was arrested at 18, and judged ‘a serious threat to national security’; his application for refugee status was revoked, and his expulsion ordered. The reasons were not revealed, nor was any evidence provided by Bulgaria’s National Security Agency as to why he was deemed dangerous. In his 13 years in Bulgaria, he has never received a formal conviction, but has been held for long periods in the Busmanci detention centre. He told me he knows people who have been kept there for as long as eight years without being told why. There has been at least one death. An EU directive now sets a time limit for detainment of those awaiting official status or deportation of six months, with a 12-month extension under special circumstances. According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, though, detention of migrants from North and Sub-Saharan Africa regularly exceeds these time limits, indicating targeted discrimination.
Djaved has repeatedly sought help from the State Agency for Refugees, but has been greeted with the same question, from the cleaner to the director: ‘What business do you have here?’ They say they can’t help him, because they are poor themselves. The agency rarely provides adequate legal aid or translation services for migrants, which only serves to heighten their isolation and ghettoisation. Even those with official status are often forced to look for illegal employment.
Djaved escaped one war in Afghanistan, but there is another one in Bulgaria: the immigrants’ war, he calls it, ‘because you have to fight to be an immigrant.’