Boris Cheshirkov with the Bulgarian Representation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in an interview with FOCUS News Agency
FOCUS: Mr. Cheshirkov, 20 June is World Refugee Day. What do people regard it as?
Boris Cheshirkov: 20 June is World Refugee Day and we want Bulgaria to recall what it means to leave your home and be forced to do it not in order to find a better job or better education, but because you might even die. Perhaps if you remain, you could find yourself in so humiliating conditions or be subject to torture that it could be unpardonable and you flee. Actually, this is not a celebration; we do not celebrate the fact that there are refugees, but we just want to recall that Bulgaria and Bulgarians should open their homes, welcome and give a helping hand to a person who is actually very vulnerable.
FOCUS: What about the refugees in Bulgaria?
Boris Cheshirkov: There are not a lot of refugees in Bulgaria. The refugees who manage to reach Bulgaria are a few thousand in the past 20 years, but those who are recognized as such and remain in Bulgaria are only a few. Last year ten people were granted a refugee status, which means they enjoy the same rights as Bulgarians, can remain here and start their lives anew, can start learning Bulgarian language, find a job and a home and try to start from scratch. Globally, migration flows are huge; it seems they modify every year; millions of people travel across international borders and refugees are some of them. There are about 15 million refugees worldwide; so there are few in Bulgaria.
FOCUS: Is there a difference between asylum seekers and refugees? Some people think they are one and the same thing.
Boris Cheshirkov: No, they are not. There is a refugee status, which is a declaration, in our case a declaration of Bulgaria, that the person in question told their story and the Bulgarian government believes that the person is really a refugee. An asylum seeker is someone who claims they are a refugee. They could be, for example hypothetically, an American who has decided that they can buy a villa more easily in Bulgaria and that’s why they come, but in the end they decided that the easiest way to do this is to be a refugee and say they seek asylum. There are refugees among asylum seekers, but it is up to the Bulgarian government to distinguish between them.
FOCUS: What is the percentage of distinguishing between refugees and asylum seekers?
Boris Cheshirkov: A procedure starts on the border. Most people coming to Bulgaria cross the border with Turkey and they meet the border police on the very border. They usually manage to tell them in any language that they need asylum. Some of them say “asylum” or “azil” (from Romanian), which means asylum internationally. This means that from now on a competent institution, such as the State Agency for Refugees in Bulgaria, has to consider the application, meet the person in question, speak with them in a language they understand, if possible in the presence of a lawyer, who tells them what rights they have. Additional questions are asked to find out where the person comes from, why they left their country, whether there is a threat, even a death threat, for them, what the reasons are. Only then is it clear whether the person is a refugee or not.
FOCUS: You gave a hypothetical example with an American. Are there many similar and real cases?
Boris Cheshirkov: I can give you more specific statistics. First, there are asylum seekers from almost all countries across the world. Bulgaria has been maintaining statistics since 1993 and from then till the end of April there were a bit over 20,000 applications submitted by asylum seekers and about 1,500 recognized refugees; so the number is small. I do not know how many of these 1,500 refugees remained in Bulgaria, but we know with certainty that many of them head to the west, because they think it is more difficult to integrate in Bulgaria, it is more difficult to find a job and they do not speak Bulgarian, which is one more hurdle. These are the hurdles they encounter.
FOCUS: Are there refugee projects financed with European or other funds?
Boris Cheshirkov: The State Agency for Refugees at the Council of Ministers is the main institution competent to consider the applications of asylum seekers and give a refugee status; there is also a humanitarian status. The Agency’s budget is provided by the national budget. There is also a European Refugee Fund which makes it possible to implement more projects through the State Agency for Refugees. For example, the Bulgarian Red Cross has recently won a project for social mediators. A group of 10 refugees who have been recognized in Bulgaria, speak Bulgarian fluently and know the situation help the newcomers to orientate themselves, be able to speak with the institutions and even use some devices which are not very common.
FOCUS: Which EU country has the worst refugee situation?
Boris Cheshirkov: I would not say the EU, because the situation is hard in Africa, as well as in Jordan. They are home to hundreds of thousand of refugees from Iraq and, recently, from Syria. The situation is hard also in Kenya, where the biggest refugee camp is located. There more than a million of people live in tents and you can see from the air how one million of people look like. I am not quite sure, but around 200,000 asylum seekers come to Europe, but a very few of them are recognized as refugees. I can still remember the footage broadcast from the Italian island of Lampedusa last year at the height of the Arab Spring, especially during the conflict in Libya; footage of arriving boats and locals’ inability to handle the arriving crowds of people, actually thousands of people. Lampedusa is a small island and its population is not large and that’s why it seemed the arriving people are many, but actually they were not. Actually, in Europe it is said that the asylum seekers during the Arab Spring decreased. At that time there was only one Libyan asylum seeker in Bulgaria. Those hundreds of thousands of people went to Tunisia and Egypt, because nobody wants to leave their home; everyone wants to remain close to it. Now in Syria, for example, many of the fleeing people remain in the border zones and wait for the situation to improve so that they can return home later.
FOCUS: Are there many cases in which people return after seeking asylum in another country?
Boris Cheshirkov: Hundreds of thousands of people return to their homes every year, but it has to be calm and safe there, so that they can return with dignity. A refugee returning home with nothing, especially if their home and the city were destroyed, needs help and the international community helps very well, but they have other needs that have to be met.