Rain pouring. Thunder striking, illuminating the towering mountain silhouettes, our trusty diesel engine roaring through the night. Idyllic moments for every traveler.
The Eastern Caravan was heading to Sofia, where after the regular short sleep with met Tanya in the early morning. She is leading one of the oldest refugee support organization in the country. While waiting outside the migration directorate in Sofia, we were briefed on the major issues that Bulgaria and migrants are facing. The war in Syria has put a strain on the countries institutions and it can barely manage the increased influx of refugees. Terrible living conditions, bureaucratic difficulties and police misdemeanor are some of the things that migrants often encounter when entering Bulgaria.
Tanya had arranged us a meeting with the deputy director on migration. We were escorted through a maze of corridors until we reached his office. It is characteristic of officials in Bulgaria to decorate their study and give it that cozy feeling they enjoy in their homes. Funny posters, football trophies, drawings, colourful pen holders can really add to the professionalism you exert as a government employee. This office was no exception, when entering you are immediately greeted by a flashy portrait of Vasil Levski, a 19th century revolutionary and national hero, then when you look a bit closer at it you can also see a Real Madrid - Barcelona ticket casually placed in the bottom right corner of the frame. Another portrait was also visible, it was of no one else than the deputy director himself. The caption underneath said "BIG BOSS".
He proceeded to explain that they had done all in their power to provide the best possible conditions for migrants and often the stories you could hear from them are not entirely true. The main issue is that the majority of them do not wish to stay in the country and see it as a short stop towards the richer western EU countries, thus no one is interested in learning the local language, attend classes or apply for a job. He then proceeded to discredit refugees' claims by showing us pictures of self-made weapons that were found in the asylums, or of poor hygiene and littering. Although we had no reason to doubt the honesty of his claims, this did leave a bad taste, as these cannot be valid arguments that should be used to compliment the good job the directorate is doing.
We visited one of the so called registration centers, where migrants live temporarily until they receive the proper legal status. It was being renovated and we had the unique opportunity to see how it was before and how it will look like. Upon entering the area, the people there started asking us where we're from in case some of us originated from their desired future destinations after leaving Bulgaria. You could hear questions like "Stockholm?", "Germany?" etc. Indeed most didn't plan on staying, which was no wonder given the basic impression they got from what they could see in the camps.
Truly the conditions were quite bad, the refugees had to set up improvised tents from blankets and sheets in a large hall. Bathrooms and toilets were in a terrible state. Until recently this building had been completely abandoned and was put back into use because of the Syrian war. The positive thing we can draw from all this is that after the renovation proper living conditions will be provided albeit probably not for everyone.