Note from the LeftEast editors: this article has been published in collaboration with the new Balkan web-portal Bilten.org. Original publication in Serbo-Croatian is to be found here.
When in 2012 Greece began the erection of a wall along its border with Turkey, nationalist formations in Bulgaria voiced the same demand for the country’s southern border. Back then this demand seemed comic at best and was ridiculed throughout the entire political spectrum. Two years later, a barb-wired fence along the Turkish-Bulgarian border is a nationalist dream-come-true.
In October 2013 after approximately one month of increased flow of asylum seekers through the Bulgarian-Turkish border, the Bulgarian Parliament announced its plans to build a 36km long fence along the border with Turkey. The decision was preceded by protests of nationalists and a demonstration led by representatives of the nationalist party VMRO culminating in an attempt to seal off the border in September 2013. The fence is supposed to limit access to Bulgarian, and thus EU, territory by reorienting border-crossers’ movement towards legitimate check points.
To date, the fence has not been constructed, though not because of opposition from national and international organizations or public opinion. The sole focus of public and political debates about the future wall center on suspicions of corruption and abuse of public offices that surfaced after the initial price of approximately 5 million leva (roughly 2.5 million euro)almost doubled to over 9 million in February. The funding for this enterprise has been secured through restructuring of the national budget and through EU funds.
The debates surrounding the fence have fallen onto the tracks of pro- or anti-European debates regarding administrative reforms in the asylum system of the country and anti-corruption talks. Actually, the “refugee drum” does not beat for the first time in Bulgaria. Negotiations surrounding Bulgaria’s potential accession in the Schengen structures have always used the border-crossers as small change in proving the country’s capability for securing European borders. Back in 2011, when Bulgaria still had a relatively small amount of asylum applications, the former PM, Boyko Borisov told the Bulgarian public that he would not be able to secure the country’s territory from the “illegals” if we were not accepted into Schengen. This threat was addressed to western European countries, implying that large numbers of “illegals” would be headed their way. However, the real reasons for the political unwillingness towards Bulgaria’s accession into the Agreement however, comes from the country’s close proximity to Greece – a Schengen member since 1992– and the expected increase in the number of border crossings into Bulgaria, from where entry into Western Europe is easier. The ongoing attempts to seal Bulgaria’s border follow the same logic to a large extent. If the political class is to prove its capability to defend European borders they have a better chance to be taken seriously during the next round table of negotiations.
Ever since the so-called “refugee crisis,” efforts have been directed towards preventing acess to Bulgarian territory. In November 2013, 1400 police officers were sent to the border in order to assist their colleagues from Border Police in hunting ‘illegals.” According to media reports, one could spot police officers and border guards every few hundred meters alongside the border. Results came shortly. In October of 2013, 3626 people crossed the border as compared to 1652 people in November, a few hundred in December and only 50 in January of 2014 (in comparison to January of 2013, 193 people crossed the border). Push-backs at the border also take place. In December it became clear that police officers were not given clear instructions on how to deal with people who attempt to cross the border. From a report made by Bulgarian National Television it surfaced that border guards were tutored to ‘beat [border-crossers] and return them to Turkey.’ The army has also been mobilized to secure the border in missions described vaguely by the Minister of Defense as ‘involvement of the army in accordance with its lawful functions, with staff and equipment, following the Plan for limiting the flow of third-country citizens to the territory of the country.’ This spectacle of semi-legal measures aimed at blocking the entry of asylum seekers has been silently watched by the Frontex border guards working in close collaboration with their colleagues in Bulgaria since the expansion of the Frontex Poseidon program in 2011. From the outset of the increased flow of asylum seekers in 2013 the EU has offered support in terms of expertise, which consists of placing Frontex staff at the border who have since been consenting witnesses to all the reported cases of pushbacks and other violations of the rights of asylum seekers.
This institutionally driven man-force sealing off the border, coupled with nationalist protests, local demonstrations against the building of camps for refugees throughout the country and inadequate asylum policies, creates a much more effective barricade against asylum-seekers than could be hoped from any border wall. The European Union’s timid attempts to allegedly question the actions of the Bulgarian government display the larger political consensus throughout Europe which presents asylum-seekers as criminals and keeps them at bay. European policies have been long oriented towards prevention of access to European territories, deportations, and socio-economic and political quarantine of subjects deemed migrants. Peripheral European countries such as Bulgaria have come to embody the true meaning of Fortress Europe: the political and social isolation of an emerging underclass which is segregated in camps and has no choice but ‘illegal’ participation in the economic sphere.
With the recent signing of the“readmission treaty” between EU and Turkey, the border triangle between Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria will more than ever exemplify a cat-and-mouse-chase, where western European countries will be the sole ‘winner.’ Increased social unrest in the respective countries and the rapid creation of a migrant underclass, however, signal that so-called European solidarity needs conceptual revision. The latter should not be locked solely in balancing refugee numbers but must address the rapidly growing socio-economic gap between different social classes.
We can see the nightmarish idea of a physical wall multiplying along the external borders of the Union alongside the less visible fences that obstruct the access of migrants to social and political rights. While the EU is proclaiming democracy and universal human rights, a new form of nationalism is on the rise – one that is not founded in the nation-state but is instead fortifying the wealthy core member-states by turning the periphery into an alert border zone. This kind of nationalism is based on protecting and perpetuating economic inequalities as seen, for example, in the reframing of internal free movement as welfare abuse and in the image of gated communities locking themselves away from the increasing poverty of the surrounding slums.