Alessandro Penso Reveals Disparity in Bulgarian Refugee Centers

PASTROGOR, BULGARIA - In 2013, Bulgaria started experiencing international migration flows like never before, suddenly finding around 11,000 refugees and asylum seekers within its borders in the space of just a few months. Caught completely unprepared for the crisis, the Bulgarian Government would define it as the greatest humanitarian emergency the country has faced in the last 90 years.

In an effort to cope, Bulgaria reopened abandoned schools and military barracks as refugee centers. But the conditions and the management of these centres attracted strong criticism from the international community. With almost six million euros from the European Union, Bulgaria has started restructuring and reorganizing the centers and controlling its border with Turkey.

The Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund grant has given me the opportunity to return to Bulgaria to document the great changes this country is undergoing as it faces the issue of teeming migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.

One of the places I wanted to return to was Pastrogor, a former military barracks near the Turkish border. At the start of the crisis, Pastrogor was one of the first migrant registration centers and its facilities were precarious, overcrowded, and poorly organized.

When I visited this time, the structure was host to around 400 people who had applied for refugee status. The refugees, mainly Syrian and some Afghan, were living in a building that had been organized by floors, with different groups (such as families, or men, or girls) assigned to each floor, and each floor divided into rooms. This may sound like a simple organizational observation but it was a significant improvement to the situation I had observed last November.

I spent several hours with the people there, listening to their stories and experiences. When I went outside into the courtyard though, I noticed a lot of coming and going on the fire stairs in the neighboring building. I asked where the stairs led, and the blunt response I got was, “[to the] black people”.

So, I went up the stairs to see what they were talking about.


The situation I found – just a large, bare room with bunk beds, with sheets hung over the beds for privacy – resembled the basic conditions I’d seen at the start of the crisis, except now, the room housed exclusively African asylum seekers.

There, very few people were willing to speak with me. Most seemed dejected and disappointed. 28-year-old Hassan from Mali pointed out that the Africans had been carefully separated from the others and that none of the rooms in the center had been assigned to them. “The only Syrians they’ve put with us are those with mental problems,” he said.

Like many others there, Hassan had been in Pastrogor for eight months and still no response about his application. “There is no room for us here at the moment. We are second-class refugees,” he said.

- Alessandro Penso, 2014 Emergency Fund Grantee

Simone Salvo