BRUSSELS —Bulgaria has recently seen a surge in xenophobic attacks since a wave of Syrian refugees escaping the horrors of the war started arriving. But it appears what these refugees have found in Bulgaria isn’t much better than what they left behind.
Last year, roughly 11,600 migrants and asylum seekers crossed into Bulgaria from Turkey, most of them Syrian. Human rights organizations expect tens of thousands to make the journey across the Turkish border in the coming months.
But the mass influx of migrants has triggered a wave of nationalistic fervor goaded by public statements of right-wing leaders. Last November, several neo-Nazi factions, including the local branch of the international Blood and Honor Skinhead network, formed the Nationalist Party of Bulgaria, which says it wants to “cleanse Bulgaria from the foreign and alien immigrant scum that have been flooding the towns of Bulgaria.”
The party has organized so-called “civil patrols,” which stop and check foreigners—and a portion of the general population thinks that this is a good idea.
The surge of the nationalist sentiment seems to be fueled by the Bulgarian government’s lack of preparation and adequate response to the refugee crisis. The poorest member of the EU has struggled to provide even the most basic amenities to the Syrian refugees. Doctors without Borders warned of the “disastrous lack of medical care,” as hundreds of Syrians have to sleep outdoors due to lack of shelters.
Bulgaria’s recent events are just the latest in a series of worrying developments involving neo-Nazi parties. Since the rise of the Golden Dawn party in Greece, far-right nationalist parties and movements seem to be gathering momentum all over Europe, carrying with them a disturbing brand of racism and xenophobia. They have focused their actions on migrants and refugees coming to Europe to escape poverty, hunger, economic deprivation, civil wars and other violent conflicts.
In Greece, the extreme-right promotes the theory that migrants enter the country within a well-organized plan to take Greece away from Greeks, and they do not hesitate to use violence in their actions against them.
The Greek parliament recently reacted by removing state funding from Golden Dawn after six MPs from the party were charged with running a criminal organization in a case triggered by the murder of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas. Party leader Nikos Michaloliakos was charged with setting up a political group with Nazi beliefs and encouraging violence against minorities. He is also awaiting trial on charges of running a criminal organization.
In Sweden, far-right extremists of the Swedish Resistance Movement, a neo-Nazi group that became more active in 2012 after years of declining visibility, have been linked to a killing in the Stockholm area. The group has also said it was responsible for an attack with stones, bottles and fireworks on a group of 200 people holding an anti-racism demonstration in Stockholm in December 2013.
In Slovakia, last November, Marian Kotleba, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Our Slovakia Party, has been elected regional governor of Banska Bystrica in central Slovakia. Kotleba, who once belonged to the now-outlawed Neo-Nazi Slovenská Pospolitosť movement, has expressed sympathy for the Nazi puppet state that ruled Slovakia during World War II.
Kotleba has previously organized marches against Slovakia’s Roma minority, branding it as “parasites.” The 2011 census put the Roma population of Slovakia at about 106,000, out of a total population of 5.5 million. But the figure for the Roma is disputed, with some estimates putting its numbers higher, at more than 5 percent of the population. The Roma community has recently become a scapegoat for an economic slowdown and the likelihood of increased government austerity measures to satisfy the EU’s deficit targets.
The problem of discrimination and exclusion of the Roma communities is not recent though, nor is it limited to Slovakia. Important Roma communities live in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania, and they too have long complained about being discriminated against. Many Roma live in poverty and suffer higher rates of sickness and illiteracy than the national average.
Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have also repeatedly denounced the human rights violations of the Roma population living in Western Europe. In September 2013, it published a report that examined repeated forced evictions of informal settlements inhabited by the Roma in greater Paris, Lille and Lyon.
The collapse of confidence in institutions after the 2008 financial crisis, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the increasingly difficult economic conditions have no doubt played a part in this surge of hostility against migrants and refugees and the increasing popularity of far-right parties all over Europe.
This is particularly obvious in Greece, where many now face with hunger, homelessness and a lack of basic health care. The traditional parties seem unable to offer either an alternative to the austerity regime or a plausible strategy for surviving it. This has allowed the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn to become the fastest growing political movement in Greece, moving from a politically marginal group, which it still was in 2009. The turning point came clearly with the debt crisis that pushed Greece into economic depression.
But anti-migrant rhetoric is not limited to the extreme right. Similar discourse was used by Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras in his 2012 pre-election campaign, when he claimed that illegal migrants have become “the tyrants of society,” and that “our cities are occupied by illegal migrants” and “we have to reoccupy them.”
The rhetoric and practices of the two parties are very similar. Both demand the control and limitation of undocumented migration. Both advocate physical measures against migrants.
In January, a boat packed with refugees from Afghanistan and Syria was found by the Greek coast guard in the waters off Farmakonisi Island near Turkey. According to the victims and UNHCR officers in Athens, the coast guard began illegally towing the boat back toward Turkish waters. But the small boat capsized, and at least three women and three children died.
Tactics such as these have become common along European borders. In December 2013, Amnesty International reported that European and Greek borders authorities were preventing Syrian refugees from reaching European territory, leaving them without help in the water, assaulting them and destroying or confiscating their property.
The issue is not only the neo-Nazi attacks on people coming from other countries, but the general spirit that seems to be prevailing on almost all sides of the political spectrum — that it is acceptable to mistreat, abuse and criminalize migrants and refugees and to blatantly violate their most fundamental rights, including the right to life. This has created a climate of impunity where many people think it is acceptable to attack migrants and refugees.
Secretary General of Amnesty International Salil Shetty said during a recent visit in Brussels that “failure to rescue people in distress at sea, dangerous interceptions, push-backs, torture and abuse in detention are all illegal under international and under European law.”
Shetty wondered, “Have the countries of the European Union lost their way?”
Shetty considers these “practices form part of an explicit EU policy of deterrence, a policy of prevention, not of protection.”
The sad reality is that police and border guards’ tactics are as extreme as the discourse of the extreme-right. Where then, is the difference?