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‘Go Turkey’ II – The Vigilante Superheroes and the Migrant Riot in Harmanli

‘Turkey. Go back. Back Turkey. Go. No Bulgaria for you. Go Turkey. Immediately.’ Back in April, Petar Nizamov became a ‘patriotic hero’ for tying the hands of a few men with nylon cables because he caught them crossing the Bulgarian border. Dinko Valev, the other refugee hunter who also became a ‘superhero’ at the same time recently appeared as a guest in a reality show called The Farm.

Valev’s  introduction video features racism and hatred, but what is even more disturbing is that this message was broadcasted on national television. The video shows Valev talking to a person from Syria, possibly played by an actor. Valev asks him why he is in Bulgaria, demanding to see his documents, ordering him to leave. ‘You are eating thanks to my money, Bulgarian money. I feel like eating you, honestly.’ Valev also shares his political ambitions and pulls out a nylon cable as he proclaims: ‘Those Bulgarians who don’t like me are not Bulgarians.’ Worryingly, the public reaction to that video shown by the national television channel BTV is positive.

What happened in Harmanli?

A few months after the vigilante squads story, Bulgaria got in the international news again. The largest Bulgarian reception centre for asylum seekers, in Harmanli, was hit by a riot after the Bulgarian authorities enforced limitations for entering and leaving the centre. Several hundred migrants protested against this decision. During the riot, rocks were thrown at the police and tires were set on fire. The police authorities used rubber bullets and water cannons against the several hundred men who were throwing rocks at them. Watching the video reports on the riot again I cannot help but thinking how much it looks like war.

One volunteer helping refugees, Lidia Staykova, showing pictures of wounded men, tells a different story to BTV. ’These pictures were sent to me by refugees after the police action in their rooms… by people I know who live there.’ Lidia tells how after the riot the police authorities invaded the rooms of those who live in the centre in Harmanli and started beating all men and teenage boys who were in their way, even though they were not involved in the riot.

In response to the riot, the UN Refugee Agency wrote a statement: ‘UNHCR urges the Bulgarian government to decongest the Harmanli reception centre, improve living conditions and strengthen management of the centre. Most of all, UNHCR urges the government to establish a constructive dialogue with asylum-seekers staying in the centre. UNHCR will continue to support the efforts of the authorities to improve conditions and to work with the refugees and local communities to diffuse any tensions.’

The centre hosts 52% of the asylum seekers in Bulgaria. ‘Harmanli is seriously overcrowded, since it is hosting 3,100 asylum-seekers, of whom one third are children, when its official capacity is 2,710. In addition to being overcrowded, sanitary conditions at the centre are also concerning, with intermittent warm water supply,’ states UNHCR.

For every action born out of hatred, there will be another one

Seeing how a large group of men throws rocks at the police is disturbing. Watching how vigilantes are spreading hatred through national media is disturbing. But what disturbs and worries me most is witnessing how hatred is poisoning a nation. When talking to people in Sofia about the issue, I keep overhearing phrases like:

‘There is not enough money and healthcare for the Bulgarians and the government is feeding these refugees. The European Union gives them 1300 BGN per person while the Bulgarians are starving.’

‘These savages can never be integrated.’

‘Someone is paying them. They are here to destroy Europe.’

‘The government is doing nothing to stop them, so it’s up to the Bulgarian people to take action against these migrants.’

‘If I was a migrant and someone gave me food and shelter I would stay inside and won’t complain. They are in another country, what more do they expect? They should respect our country and be quiet.’

Hatred disguised as patriotism, is slowly poisoning the hearts of millions and what is evident is that for every action born out of hatred, another one will follow. If you isolate a few thousand people, lock them up in a camp, don’t communicate with them and make them understand that they’re not wanted here, how can you expect them to be peaceful and quiet just because they are not in their home country, because they are migrants and refugees? This is not how migration policies should be put into practice.

Nearly seven decades ago, a single man left a legacy: ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.’ If people continue to think in an ‘us’ and ‘them’ way, we are all threatened by that blindness Mahatma Gandhi was talking about. Countries have borders but what happens inside these borders cannot be isolated from what is happening anywhere else. We can all see how the war in Syria is affecting so many other countries. The UK’s decision to leave the EU has disrupted the whole Union. After Trump won the US presidential elections, political leaders in Europe started spreading similar right-wing populist messages to win elections in their countries. Geert Wilders with his ‘Make the Netherlands Great Again’ is just one such example

I strongly believe that pseudo-patriotism, racism, nationalism, Islamism and all those other ‘isms’ are pulling humanity into a dangerous evolutionary regression. I don’t know the solution to the refugee and migration crisis we are facing but I wouldn’t trust anyone who says that there is a simple single solution to it. And the hard-core right seems to believe that they have this simple solution: close the borders, build walls, spread discriminatory messages in the media. I would much rather put my trust in Albert Einstein’s words:  ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’ Solving complex humanitarian problems requires serious re-thinking. At this moment we seem to follow old paths that led this continent into catastrophe before.

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