State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014 - Case study: Rising hostility against Bulgaria's refugee population

by Yuliana Metodieva

Minority groups in Bulgaria, such as Roma and ethnic Turks, have long suffered discrimination and marginalization – and this has also translated into hate speech and bias motivated violence. However, the arrival of thousands of refugees displaced by the conflict in Syria has provided right-wing groups and extremists with a new target. MRG discussed this troubling new trend with Yuliana Metodieva, a researcher and writer on minority issues in Bulgaria.

Do you think that hate crime and hate speech are currently on the rise in Bulgaria?

Compared to some countries in Europe, we appear not to have a very high rate of hate crime – yet this may be a bit of an illusion. In its report for 2013, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee states that there's a huge issue with crimes against ethnic minorities that are not adequately investigated, including murder of Roma. Furthermore, the recent wave of Syrian refugees has provoked a fresh wave of hate speech and violence in Bulgaria. It has reactivated old stereotypes and led to acts such as vandalism against refugees, attacks on mosques and so on. Unfortunately, Western European states such as France, Italy, Belgium or the Netherlands have not set a good example through their own actions, especially with the recent mass expulsions of Roma.

What do you think is driving these developments?

Both the media and the government have been stoking anti-refugee fears and prejudices, demonizing people who have fled for their lives from Syria. In a recent interview, the director of the Refugee Agency allowed himself to insult Syrian asylum seekers in a very humiliating manner. Added to that is the problem of impunity – this weakens protections for minorities.

A logical consequence of all these developments is the rise of ultra-nationalist parties who send out extremely dangerous and harmful messages about Syrians and other groups. More worrying is that the concrete result of all this anti-refugee rhetoric is the formation of vigilante groups who 'protect' the streets of Sofia with every possible means they choose. In the country, residents in towns and villages have also protested against refugee camps being built nearby.

Who do you think is benefiting from this hostility towards minorities?

It's very easy to see the relation between the progressive pauperization of society and the rising hostility against minorities: people need a scapegoat for their problems, particularly poverty and unemployment. Historically, minorities have always been at hand for this role. Furthermore, the main political parties in Bulgaria are well aware of the benefits they can gain from exploiting this situation. With one significant exception, they either share the popular position or just use it to propagate what they call 'a good and moderate nationalism'.

How has the internet changed the situation?

Back in 2005, I collaborated on a study of online anti-Semitism. Even then, we found a very high prevalence of racist hate speech – but since then, the potential of the internet for this purpose has expanded alarmingly, especially with Facebook. Being an open platform for everyone, allowing people to unite under whatever cause or ideology they want, it provides racists with the opportunity to organize into hate groups against minorities.

This tendency is not surprising. As a result of the deepening economic crisis in post-communist countries like Bulgaria, many people have lost their jobs, their place in society, their chance of enjoying a decent retirement. What is now prevailing is fear, uncertainty and a strong desire to find a scapegoat for the situation. Roma, Turks and now refugees have filled this space, helped along by internet forums.

What steps need to be taken to protect minorities against hatred and prejudices in Bulgaria?

The key point, reiterated by many reports, recommendations and assessments by the European Union, is the reform of the judicial system, legislation and official policies. The problem with many cases of hate speech and hate crime is that they're not investigated as such. As for addressing the root causes, there have been some very good practices in Bulgaria over the last six years, such as media trainings and campaigns to popularize human rights and positive attitudes towards minorities. Added to this is the increasing access of persons from minorities to professions from which they were traditionally excluded. What still needs to be done, though, is a major overhaul of the whole educational system in schools and the production of TV shows or movies with messages about tolerance and multiculturalism. This will help inform Bulgarians and provide them with a more responsible outlook on minority issues in the country.

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