Afghan migrants stuck at a Bulgarian border reception center say the camp has turned into a virtual prison for them.
Nearly 2,000 Afghan migrants at the Harmanli migrant reception center, near Bulgaria’s southern border with Turkey, are threatening a hunger strike if conditions do not improve soon.
Harmanli was the scene of rioting in recent weeks when more than 300 asylum seekers, mostly Afghans, were arrested after they protested being confined at the center following a health scare.
Ayeda Khamosh, a 17-year-old Afghan, has been stuck in Harmanli for more than three months. She and five members of her family made the arduous 5,000-kilometer journey from their home in Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan to Harmanli to seek security and prosperity in Europe.
But so far their dreams have been dashed in the squalid confinement of the Harmanli camp. She says life in the camp is a living hell.
“The frequent searches and how the police treat us have a very negative impact on the people struggling with depression and women who are pregnant,” she said. “Even children frequently ask, ‘What is our crime?’”
Ashna Sharifi, another asylum seeker, left her journalism program at a university in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Her five-member family paid nearly $40,000 to human traffickers to make the arduous, illegal journey to Harmanli.
But she says even the basic necessities are in short supply at the camp now.
“We have not received any aid. No one has given us any clothes, and the food we get is not edible,” she said.
Sharifi is greatly worried about being deported to Afghanistan, where her family sold all their property and belongings to fund their journey to Europe.
“Why are we being forced to live like prisoners?” she asked. “Did we do something wrong by trying to escape the war in Afghanistan?”
Harmanli made Bulgarian and international headlines on November 25 when Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said they had arrested some 300 migrants.
The arrests were made after protesting migrants clashed with the police the day before amid complaints about restrictions preventing people from leaving the center as a medical precaution.
But tensions were already running high before the riots when locals protested to demand the closure of the refugee camp.
“We have chartered a plane to Afghanistan in December to begin this extradition. Let's see if they will be welcomed there,” Borisov told journalists. "We have sent a request under the [EU-Afghan] agreement which has been signed to enable us to send them on the first plane back [to Afghanistan].”
In October, the European Union signed an agreement with the Afghan government to allow its member states to deport an unlimited number of Afghan asylum seekers. The deal requires Kabul to accept them.
On December 6, Bulgarian Interior Minister Roumyana Bachvarova said about 300 Afghan citizens have applied to voluntarily return to their country. She said this number could reach 500. There are currently 13,000 migrants in Bulgaria, most of whom are from Afghanistan.
The fate of these asylum seekers, however, is in limbo, and it is not clear whether Bulgaria will grant asylum to some or allow them to move on to its northern and western European neighbors.
The Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees didn’t respond to questions about the mistreatment of asylum seekers at Harmanli. The questions were sent in an e-mail early on December 8.
Ahmad Rashad Karimi, another Afghan asylum seeker at Harmanli, is petrified at the prospect of being forced to go back to Afghanistan.
“They [the Bulgarian authorities] should investigate all the cases. I am here with my family, and we were not involved in any protests,” he said. “How can they deport us when we are not guilty of anything?”
Karimi, 26, and his wife have been stuck in the refugee camp for more than four months. He says frequent death threats forced him to abandon his teaching job at a private university in Afghanistan.
In Kabul, officials appear to be not proactively pursuing the fate of Afghan migrants in Bulgaria. They say, however, that they hope Bulgaria will honor its commitments under international refugee conventions.
“We are worried that the recent events in Bulgaria will prompt a blanket response against all Afghan asylum seekers,” said Khairullah Azad, a spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry. “We hope the rights of Afghan citizens will not be violated.”
Lawmaker Abdul Qader Zazai Watandost, a member of the Afghan Parliament’s foreign relations commission, says the best Afghan migrants can hope for from Bulgaria is to be considered for asylum there.
“If the asylum seekers want to just cross Bulgaria into another country then it is difficult to help them,” he said. “If they apply for asylum in Bulgaria, Sofia is required to deal with them in accordance with refugee conventions."
Rassouli, an Afghan asylum seeker in Harmanli who only gave one name, sees bleak prospects. "If the Bulgarian authorities fail to alleviate our suffering we will go on a hunger strike," he said.
Khamosh says she hopes she and her family can avoid being deported to Afghanistan or just pushed across the border into Turkey.
“It is very difficult for anyone to abandon their homeland,” she said. “We embarked on this journey to be able to live in peace and dignity.”