The Bulgarian EU border: to anticipate between death and life

As any other peripheral EU border, the Bulgarian one is like a swing that oscillates between life and death. Annually, thousands are trying to cross it in order to find a better life but some, instead, find a fatal end. In Bulgaria, we rarely hear about the thousands who died at sea while trying to approach the Mediterranean shores. When we do, often such news leaves us in a sheer shock as we watch hundreds of bodies covering the coasts in Italy or Greece.

One of the borders that has experienced a rising rate of deaths due to “illegal crossing” is in fact the Bulgarian one, both along its Turkish and Serbian sides. What is extreme in the case of Bulgaria is that it does not offer death only at its entrance but it extends it also at its exit. Let’s look at some of the news from the last year alone. June 4, 2014: an Afghani shot and wounded by the Bulgarian border police while trying to escape into Serbia. November 19, 2014: four refugees trying to cross the Serbian border on their way out of Bulgaria found dead. Reason: freezing. 9 days later, November 28: a body of a refugee found frozen near the Turkish-Bulgarian border. In the last piece of news we learn that on March 12, 2015, Mohammed Jawad Kadhima and Elias Murad died after sustained leg injuries in a violent attack exercised upon them by the Bulgarian border police. The limbs of the two refugees were broken, which resulted in the impossibility for them to move forward and subsequent death by freezing occurred.

Mohammed and Elias were part of a larger group of Iraqi Yazidis who were trying to reach the European Union in order to seek protection after fleeing the recent invasion executed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Supposedly, Europe’s biggest enemy and threat to our achievements as a civilization. When the group of 17 crossed onto Bulgaria, they were approached by the Bulgarian border police in a violent manner and all of them started running back to Turkey, where they dispersed. Some were picked up by a Turkish gendarmerie car. Some of the Iraqis suffered severe bodily injuries and were taken to the hospital in Edirne, where one remains in critical condition.

Violent push-backs at the Turkish-Bulgarian border is not news. They occur repeatedly and can happen to anyone despite their age or gender. Such is the case for example of Samira who was pushed back to Turkey with her four children on April 24, 2014 or of the two Syrian brothers on May 15, 2014, who were repeatedly beaten on their limbs and heads. In the latter case, this was the second time for the Syrian family to get acquainted with the reality and the rising numbers of push-backs as they take place at the European borders. The first one ended up fatally at the Mediterranean just a few months prior.

In the early 2000s, to a large degree, the European borders were organized on two premises: the obsession over one’s „objective“ reasons to escape and the obsession over one’s “objective” reasons to remain. Is it for political reasons or is it economic migration?, were the major questions asked while trying to define one’s potential status as an immigrant. The way borders functioned as determined by asylum laws, visa requirements, and freedom of movement, namely the differentiated degrees of one’s worth of crossing them, or what Balibar called the European apartheid, corresponded to the first level of obsession. Then there came the second – the obsession over “truthfulness.” This last one always presupposed that there is a universal truth behind migration and all those crossing are always already suspects of corrupting this truth. Such fixation translated in discursive statuses such as bogus asylum-seekers for those seeking protection and faked employed for those dubbed “economic migrants.” Today, the borders of the Union are slowly losing the first obsession to subsume it under another type. The obsession to prevent crossing in general.

The material effects of these last years are visible along the Turkish-Bulgarian border. The initial project to build an approximately 30-km-long wall along the border, has now increased to cover a strip as long as 131 km as it became clear on March 11 of this year.i Barb-wires and concrete will be stopping the flow of refugees despite the decline in crossings with 44% in 2014 as compared to 2013.ii This last type of fixation, in conjuncture with Germany’s continuous pressure placed on Bulgaria over “illegal immigration,” comes as enough of a reason for border guards to proceed with violence. On March 10, Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke in the capital Sofia and ensured the public about his country’s commitment towards increasing the investment plans in Bulgaria as, the country is Germany’s key partner in the fight against illegal migration. The hint was more than clear. Steinmeier spoke about the importance of the Balkan country as an external border but also of its role as an internal buffer capable of preventing further movement into Germany. In other words, the pressure exercised over Bulgaria is both on its entrance and at its exit, where the deaths occur.

Germany’s stakes in managing the Bulgarian border are not oriented solely towards the present, but also towards the past. On February 3 2015, the Bulgarian National Library in Sofia held an exhibition organized by the related to the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Named The Iron Curtain, the exhibition was a part of the larger commemorating events taking place throughout the country under the name 25 Years Free Bulgaria. The exhibition aimed at “rationalizing” the near communist past as it related to issues of borders and movement and evoked images of barbed wire, hierarchical divisions as they pertained to the institutionalizing of the border and pointed at incomplete statistics of border-related deaths that took place between 1945 and 1990. During the event, the Bulgarian President, Plevnelieviii articulated the evils of the border past as in two directions: firstly as separating the country from the “free world” and secondly, as an obstacle before those who tried to cross onto that same world. These, according to the President, are the true “confirmation of the inhumane nature of the totalitarian regime.” The German embassy did not miss the opportunity to surface the “inhumane face of the totalitarian regime” as well and gladly supported the organization of the exhibitions. Both the Konrad Adenauer’s representative and the Bulgarian liberal patriot afterwards, translated the illiberal nature of the borders of the past as oriented not necessarily towards its enemy but towards its own. “Those who died in their attempt to reach the free world are not homeland traitors… they have contributed to the liberation of the homeland… They travelled in order to participate in the common liberation movements of the enslaved European nations.” The border violence, according to the last speakers, was pointed towards those who remained in the captivity of the Iron regime. Such juxtaposition of course presupposes that contemporary European borders, the liberated borders, are oriented towards the enemy. If we put aside the quite naïve critique of socialism’s “state of immobility” and decide to stay within the boundaries of such assumptions, the exhibition is worth noting if only to analyze the border techniques implemented at keeping enemies at bay today. The resemblance between state socialism and liberal democracies in the narrative above could not be sharper. As if state socialist borders served as the prototype of what today we call the Fortress Europe.

The “refugee crisis” from last year lasted between November 2013 and June 2014. This is how much time it took international NGOs and pre-election German parties to care about push-backs, homelessness, lack of medical care, and racist attacks aimed at refugees in Bulgaria. Nothing has changed, just the number of people who attempt to escape the social misery in the country has increased. It is no secret to anybody that asylum-seekers and status-holders who flee Bulgaria are headed towards Germany. Just last year alone Germany wanted to deport back to Bulgaria 4405 people in accordance to the Dublin agreement.iv We can expect that because of the last push-back at the Turkish-Bulgarian border the cacophony of media attention and internationals flooding the country will increase. In the meantime, Germany continues to establish apartheid in Europe in all respects possible.

i The entire length of the Bulgarian-Turkish border is 259km.

ii This decrease is largely due to push-backs and scare tactics. For a detailed account on push-backs that occurred in 2013 and the first six months of 2014 and the general situation of refugees in Bulgaria, see: Hristova, Apostolova, Deneva, and Fiedler. (2014) Trapped in Europe’s Quagmire: the situation of asylum-seekers and refugees in Bulgaria. Sofia. Accessed March 16, 2015.

iii His representative read the address as prepared by the President.

iv A response of the German government to a question raised by Die Linke. Bulgaria agreed to take back 1177 people. Accessed March 16, 2015.

This publication was first published by the Serbo-Croatian political web portal Bilten.Org.The Serbo-Croatian version can be read here.

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