Nerves crumble, resentment rises as Bulgaria expels Ukrainian war refugees from “luxury” areas

hotels by the sea. Subsidized housing. And summer is just around the corner. It sounds like envy.

Aside from describing the precarious existence of thousands of Ukrainians uprooted by the war and now facing sudden orders from the Bulgarian authorities to evacuate, pay up or go home.

Officials including Prime Minister Kiril Petkov this week bemoaned the “luxury” they have been giving Ukrainians and hastily cut a resettlement program for many of those refugees, further worrying many displaced victims of the Russian invasion and prompting some to relocate despite the risks to return home.

Less than a month after Bulgaria announced it would halt hotel refugee reimbursements as the tourist season neared its Black Sea coast, some 60,000 Ukrainians faced a June 1 deadline to vacate hotels amid a massive regional crisis subsidized accommodation.

“The Bulgarian state cannot continue to support such a luxurious stay in Bulgaria,” said Petkov, who took office in December 2021. said on May 31st.

“For three months we have provided unprecedented support in some of the best hotels in Bulgaria. Now we are entering a somewhat more normal framework, although these are refugees. The Bulgarian state cannot endlessly support such a luxury stay Bulgaria –– [and] We are entering a reality that is closer to what is expected for refugees.”

Amid concerns about a lack of alternative facilities, senior officials this week accused refugees of failing to register their whereabouts or simply refusing buses and trains meant to take them to “buffer centers” and uncertain futures.

But testimonies from refugees and volunteer organizers suggest that the Bulgarian government and its relevant agencies have not fully communicated their plans to Ukrainians, who have already fallen victim to the war and are struggling to keep up with Sofia‘s rapidly evolving resettlement efforts.

“Protection is … not a duty”

“We have no official information,” Tetyana, a nurse who fled eastern Ukraine with her 13-year-old daughter after war broke out, told RFE/RL’s Bulgarian service on May 30. “Absolutely none.”

She and her daughter have been staying at a hotel in the Cape resort of Sozopol since fleeing in the family car from their home in Druzhkivka, a town in the Donbass region that had already changed hands twice since Russia-backed separatists left parts Ukraine conquered in 2014 and is currently threatened by the Russian military’s pincer pushes in the region.

Tetyana, a Ukrainian refugee, near Sozopol in Bulgaria.

Tetyana said neither she nor other refugees she spoke to had received any information about transport to a refugee center, although she said she completed an online survey announced weeks ago by Deputy Prime Minister Kalina Konstantinova.

“We were told that we would receive a preliminary notification 48 hours before the move – either by email, by phone or via our personal profile on the ukraine.gov.bg website,” Tetyana said. “However, nobody received anything. We also communicate with the people in the other hotels in Sozopol, [and] they have not received any information either.”

She said there was no word yet on where she and her daughter might be sent.

“We checked a few [sites] we could accommodate ourselves, but this [refugee] The crisis center responded by telling us that we have no right to conform. A few days later they said we could accommodate ourselves: ‘Just find a place,'” Tetyana said. “First they told us not to check in alone because the hotels would pay us fees, and then they told us that if we could find a place, we could move.”

Konstantinova announced a new path in a Ukrainian-language video released on May 30.

When just a tiny trickle of refugees showed up last week to board buses and trains organized by the government to take them from their current hotels to unspecified facilities, Konstantinova complained that too many Ukrainians, who were more transient protection was provided, failed to notify on-site teams of intentions to accommodate or use free transportation.

As a result, Konstantinova said, only Ukrainian refugees “in real need who have nowhere to go after May 31” would remain accommodated in “buffer centers”. in Elhovo, about 100 kilometers from the coast, and Sarafovo, near Burgas Airport.

Ukrainian refugees at the Elhovo center in Bulgaria.

Ukrainian refugees at the Elhovo center in Bulgaria.

The rest, she suggested, must find their own way.

She bluntly added: “Protection is a right, not an obligation. That’s why I won’t let empty buses or empty cars leave anymore. From this moment on, the development of the situation is in the hands of the Ukrainian community in Bulgaria. “

“Live like everyone else”

Bulgaria is the poorest member of the European Union, and the opposition and other critics have accused Petkov’s government of underfunding the influx of some of Ukraine’s 6 million war refugees.

Nearly 300,000 Ukrainians have invaded NATO-member Bulgaria since Russian tanks and troops rolled into Ukraine on February 24 in the largest military invasion in Europe since World War II.

Around 100,000 of them have been granted temporary shelter and protection, while most others are believed to be traveling on to more affluent EU destinations.

As peak season for hotels and other businesses on the Bulgarian Riviera approached, officials repeatedly announced and changed their plans for the tens of thousands of Ukrainians benefiting from a government scheme to charge hotels 40 leva a day ($22) to accommodate to reimburse refugees.

Tourism Minister Hristo Prodanov warned At the end of April, Bulgaria had “accommodated and cared for refugees long enough,” he added: “Now they have to enter the labor market, find an apartment, pay rent and live like everyone else.”

In early May, officials said they would end hotel reimbursements by the end of the month and move the refugees to unspecified facilities.

Days later, the head of the Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees, Maryana Tosheva, said expressed confidence that “no one is left out on the street,” but acknowledged that 63,000 Ukrainian refugees were being housed in Bulgarian hotels and only about 33,000 vacancies in the state and local centers set up to host them.

She suggested the 30,000-person gap “will shrink a lot” as Ukrainians who “have said they want to leave the country” leave or find rent-free alternatives, including with relatives or acquaintances.

A few days later, Prime Minister Petkov’s cabinet said it had changed its mind and would extend the reimbursement scheme – but at a lower rate of 15 leva per day, causing some hotel owners to weep.

By the end of May, a Konstantinova adviser said, around 23,000 sites had applied to accept Ukrainian refugees under the new reimbursement policy.

But the Bulgarian Red Cross said last week more Ukrainians left the country than arrived – a first since the Russian invasion began three months ago.

Some Ukrainian refugees told Bulgarian media last week that they felt obliged to return to Ukraine despite the deepening conflict and fears for their own safety.

“I’m going home because I don’t know what’s going to happen to us at the end of the month,” says Maryna from Cherkassy, ​​a central Ukrainian city of nearly 300,000 before the war. to the Bulgarian national broadcaster BNT.

A “complete vacuum”

“These people should be notified 48 hours before they are taken anywhere, they should at least get a message. That’s how it was described in the program,” Maksym, a Ukrainian who is helping other refugees in the port city of Burgas, told RFE/RL.

Instead, he and other volunteers are often told where the transport buses stop “outside the hotels, literally 30 minutes before they arrive,” and refugees are simply told, “Get on the buses, we don’t know where you’re going to be taken’ or ‘We’re going to be taken not tell you.'”

There was a “complete vacuum” of information from the authorities, he said.

In a passionate Open letter on Facebookone of the organizers of a Facebook page supporting Ukrainian refugees in Bulgaria, accused Konstantinova, Tosheva and other officials of a “complete lack of communication with refugees from the moment they cross the border [and a] complete lack of understanding of needs.”

In a point-by-point argument, Julianna Lisa Kylukina said virtually none of the public notices about the forthcoming resettlement had been issued in Ukrainian and indicated officials were “indifferent” to the fate of the refugees. She estimates that her group receives more than 100 inquiries a day from Ukrainians, mostly “mothers with children and the elderly,” who want to know how and where the resettlement will take place.

“In all three months, the refugee problem was solved with the help of volunteers, ordinary residents of Bulgaria,” said Kylukina, challenging the authorities. “And you created problem programs that volunteers had to solve!”

In Tsarevo, a southeastern coastal town, Olena reported to the Bulgarian authorities hours before the eviction deadline on June 1, but received no official information. She thought about how and where she and her daughter, mother, sister and young niece could go.

Ukrainian refugee Olena (left) and her family members stayed in the Bulgarian resort of Tsarevo.

Ukrainian refugee Olena (left) and her family members stayed in the Bulgarian resort of Tsarevo.

“People who had cars have returned to Ukraine or found a house to rent,” she told RFE/RL’s Bulgarian service, “but we don’t have that option — we don’t have a car or money.”

Olena and her family are from Zaporizhzhya, a focal point of the current fighting in south-eastern Ukraine.

“We’re thinking about leaving the hotel, checking the centers one by one — maybe someone will pick us up,” she said.

Later, Olena was relieved to have found out about a center that was still hosting refugees and would take them in immediately.

Maria, a refugee from Odessa who is a volunteer in Primorsko, another coastal town about 10 kilometers north of Tsarevo, is helping to move about 100 of her compatriots to a refugee camp that is expected to close at the end of August.

She criticized the officials’ failure to phone or email about 300 Ukrainians at a local hotel and said she was still waiting for a call back with specific information from a government hotline on May 31.

“The result is that people don’t feel protected here,” Maria said. “And everyone is concerned.”

Written by Andy Heil based on reports by RFE/RL Bulgarian Service correspondents Damyana Veleva, Yana Stroi and Elitsa Simeonova

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