Refugees and Human Rights in Bulgaria

What are refugees, why are they in European countries like Bulgaria, and how is the United Nations involved?

A) What is a Refugee? Roleplay as a Refugee
B) Bulgaria and Refugees Research Local Refugee Communities
C) Human Rights & the United Nation Create an Action Plan to Help Refugees
D) Struggles in Bulgaria Combat Xenophobia with Art

This lesson was contributed to by Ms. Rita Ulrich.

A) What is a Refugee?

  1. Explain what a refugee is.  How is a refugee different from an internally displaced person?
  2. Why are people fleeing Syria? What are the top three nations receiving the most refugees?
  3. What do you think other countries can do to help the refugees find safety?
  4. What is the population of Turkey versus Bulgaria? What is the current amount of refugees in Turkey? Why do you think the number of refugees in Turkey be more intimidating and terrifying for Bulgarians than for Turks?

A refugee is a person who has left their home country, fleeing persecution or conflict, seeking asylum – or safety – in a foreign country. The leading reasons that refugees flee are war, violence, and persecution against race, religion, nationality, political views, or membership in a political group.

“An unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.” (UNHCR)

Someone who is forced to leave their home, but who has not crossed a border to another country yet, is called an internally displaced person (or a forcibly displaced person). An internally displaced person might leave their home because of persecution, a natural disaster (like an earthquake), or a man-made disaster (such as a war or a dam failing).

Take a look at the following video to get a better idea of what it would be like to become a refugee:

(Click to enlarge)

Most refugee seekers in Bulgaria (and many other parts of Europe today) are from Syria and Afghanistan. Currently, the war in Syria and dangers in Afghanistan make many individuals flee in order to find safety. As Melissa Fleming from UNHCR says, “The simple truth is that refugees would not risk their lives on a journey so dangerous if they could thrive where they are.”

The war in Syria especially has been very deadly and destructive.  From a country that is a little bit bigger than the American state of Pennsylvania, nearly 500,000 Syrians have died in the past six years. The cause of the fighting is an internal civil war between the dictator leadership of the country, a military extremist group known as ISIS, and other small ethnic factions, leaving the civilians trapped between them.2

There are many paths that refugees take to find safety, often choosing ones that take them through Turkey, a neighboring country, or through Greece as seen in the map below. In most cases, refugees travel through Turkey on their journey to reach Europe and Bulgaria. Official numbers vary, but according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are approximately 2 million refugees in Turkey at this very moment. Compared to the approximately 79,500,000 citizens already living in the country, this number may not seem very high. If you go right next door to Bulgaria though, which has a population of only 7,000,000, the refugee population is much more intimidating and terrifying to a certain segment of the population.

B) Bulgaria and Refugees

  1. Where is Bulgaria in relation to Turkey?
  2. How do refugees see Bulgaria? Why is it seen as a more restrictive pass?
  3. How do Bulgarians view refugees?
  4. What do you imagine it would be like to live in a refugee center, trapped for a year, separated from members of your family and living in a foreign nation?

Bulgaria is a small nation that is a part of Eastern Europe, on the Balkan Peninsula. The country only has seven million people, and sits on the edge of the Black Sea.


The Balkans, or the Balkan Peninsula, is a geographic area in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. The region takes its name from the Balkan Mountains that stretch from the Serbian-Bulgarian border to the Black Sea.

5As the neighbor to Turkey, Bulgaria is first country in Europe that is available to refugees to cross through when traveling on foot.  Approximately 13,000 migrants have become stuck in Bulgaria as they wait for permission to continue traveling to Germany – or are forced to go back if their application is denied.

Bulgaria, like practically all countries of Southeastern Europe, is regarded by refugees almost exclusively as a transit nation on their way to more wealthy Central and Western Europe.  Thus the country is off the main route of refugee migration – the Western Balkan route, across the open sea to Greece, to the Republic of Macedonia and Serbia, and then on to Central Europe. Several contributing factors can be identified as follows:

  • The Western Balkan route is more direct, though no less risky in its own way, but preferred by many refugees themselves and above all by the traffickers who make large profits illegally moving these asylum seekers secretly over closed borders.
  • Bulgaria treats illegal refugees in a more rigorous and restrictive way, which tends to discourage use of the route through this country because of perceived higher risk.

In Bulgaria the attitude towards refugees and the migration problem as a whole, is not straightforward. Nearly 47% of adult Bulgarian citizens are against the the European Union (of which Bulgaria is a member state) helping refugees seeking asylum on its territory. 28% of people side with the opposite opinion. According to 60% of adult residents of this country, refugees are a threat to the national security of Bulgaria. Around 15% think the opposite.

The main refugee camp in Bulgaria is Harmanli Center, which at one point held up nearly 3,000 Afghan refugees.  Today, most of its temporary residents are Syrians. Harmanli is a former military base located 50 kilometers from the Turkish border where until early 2017, asylum-seekers were living in tents, as their numbers overwhelmed existing shelter on the base.  As the refugee crisis shows no signs of subsiding, additional resources have been allocated by the European Union, the United Nations, the Bulgarian government, and other international aid organizations.

Conditions at Harmanli have improved.  Today, refugees receive daily hot meals, live in renovated buildings or ones that are in the process of being renovated, with heating, and have access to health care. Refugees are allowed to leave the camp during the day, but must return at night time. While waiting for the Bulgarian government to grant refugee status, individuals can be stuck at camps like Harmanli anywhere from 6 months to over a year.


The Gates of Harmanli Refugee Camp, Bulgaria.
For the safety of the refugees inside, as well as any family members who may remain in dangerous parts of Syria, visitors to Harmanli are not allowed to take pictures inside the camp itself.

C) Human Rights & the United Nations

  1. Why was the United Nations founded?
  2. What are the four parts of the United Nations outlined below? What does each part do?
  3. What are human rights? Be detailed and clear in your answer. Why do we need human rights? Are they important? Make an argument and defend it.
  4. Browse the Universal Declaration of Human Rights supported by the UN. If you had to choose the five most important, which would they be and why?

The United Nations (UN) is an international organization made up of 193 member states representing nearly every country in the world.  The work of the United Nations is guided by the purposes and principles contained in its founding charter – to bring about tolerance, peace, & friendship between the nations and peoples of the world.  It was founded in 1945 following the catastrophic loss of life in the Second World War.

The United Nations is made up of five branches, or parts.  The General Assembly is the main policy-making and representative organ of the UN with all 193 Member States represented. The Security Council has primary responsibility, under the UN Charter, for the maintenance of international peace and security. The Economic and Social Council is the principal body for coordination, policy review, policy dialogue, and recommendations on economic, social and environmental issues, as well as implementation of internationally agreed development goals. The International Court of Justice is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. The Court’s role is to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted to it by States and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized United Nations organs and specialized agencies.


One of the main goals of the United Nations is to protect and promote the basic natural rights of all humans.  As part of this mission, the United Nations regularly monitors and helps to define those rights for the whole world. Specifically the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), or UN Refugee Agency, takes the lead on protecting human rights around the world. UNHCR has been present in Bulgaria since 1992 when the country joined the 1951 Geneva Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.

Today, at least 10 million people around the world – and maybe many more – are denied a nationality. Stateless people may have difficulty accessing basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.  In a world where nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute as a result of conflict or persecution, the work of UNHCR is more important than ever before.


There are international human rights laws that all countries are expected to respect and follow.  Human rights are “rights inherent to all human beings, without distinction as to race, color, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. All human rights, … such as the right to life, equality before the law and freedom of expression; economic, social and cultural rights, such as the rights to work, social security and education…” are not rights that can be divided and taken away, all connected, and link to one another. These are summarized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Any nation that joins the UN is expected to respect and defend these rights.

The government of Bulgaria has been working alongside the UNHCR to protect the rights of refugees within its borders. The difficulty is that not all Bulgarians are open to refugees living or staying in the country.10

D) Struggles in Bulgaria

  1. How many refugees applied for international protection between 2013 and 2014? Why would that be threatening for Bulgarians?
  2. How are agencies trying to help Bulgaria overcome their negative views of refugees? What have the president and prime minister done to try and help as well?
  3. Watch the campaign video from UNHCR. Describe what happens during the video. What emotion does it want you to feel?
  4. What are at least two ways described above that Bulgarians have been trying to forcibly make refugees leave Bulgaria, or want to leave?

11From January 1, 2013 to March 31, 2014, approximately 9,175 persons – mainly refugees from Syria, Algeria, Afghanistan, and Iraq – applied for international protection in Bulgaria. This sudden surge in refugees – caused by instability in Middle East – has made many Bulgarians feel nervous and uncomfortable about their own national security and identity.

During the this period, there widespread reports of refugees were attacked or threatened by Bulgarians who felt hostile to these outsiders.  Despite appeals for tolerance from the president and prime minister during that time, tensions were high.  While officially secular, Bulgaria is a mostly Christian country, with three quarters of the population identifying with the Eastern Orthodox Church.  The population is also fairly homogeneous – 85% are ethnic Bulgarians.  What is more, Bulgaria has a long history of conflict with foreign groups seeking to dominate their strategic position as a crossroads between Europe and Asia, on the shores of the Black Sea, notably with its Muslim neighbor Turkey, which under its previous incarnation as the Ottoman Empire ruled Bulgaria for centuries.  The end result is a population which is proud and sometimes defensive of its identity.

The most extreme cases reactions of Bulgarians against refugees could be classified as xenophobia – intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries.  In one case, residents violently expelled three refugee families from a village in central Bulgaria. There was even an instance of protesting parents, teachers, and local authorities who prevented nine refugee children from starting school.  They claimed the children would not fit in and would hold back their Bulgarian peers.

Many organizations and agencies, such as UNHCR, have been working hard to address the situation, trying to sway public opinion within Bulgaria.  “An anti-xenophobia campaign … will urge people to ‘look at refugees with different eyes.’” said a UNHCR representative. “This campaign is aimed at influencing the attitudes of the people in the middle who are not sure who refugees are,” he added. “We are trying to refocus the debate away from numbers of refugees and supposed threats, and rally moderate voices to be heard in the public debate. Too often they are drowned out by the far right.”

UNHCR has expressed concerned about reports that refugees in need of international protection have been prevented from reaching or entering Bulgarian territory or have been forcibly expelled from Bulgaria without being able to apply for international protection. In some cases these “push-backs” have resulted in family separations. There have been several reports of these alleged “push-backs” concerning people from Syria, Afghanistan, and Sudan.

Bulgarian authorities have taken steps to address instances of anti-refugee and anti-foreigner sentiment, including through statements of the President and the Prime Minister publicly condemning racist attacks and rhetoric.

Despite positive steps, anti-foreigner political parties have become more popular (see below). Refugees and asylum-seekers continue to be harassed and fear hostility from the public. Albeit small in scale, recent public protests show discontent about the presence of refugees. In Harmanli many local residents are against the center allowing refugees to leave and move around the town during the day.

In short, in Bulgaria as in many countries around the world, refugees are part of a complicated conversation about the give-and-take between borders, human rights, and national identity – a conversation that is not likely to be resolved either simply or soon.


  1. Attempt this refugee role playing simulation to see if you have what it takes to escape persecution and violence in your home country.   What type of decisions did you have to make? Which of your human rights were violated? How much control did you have over your life and safety as a refugee fleeing to Europe?
  2. Refugees usually follow family members and friends who have successfully blazed a path to safety, creating ethnically homogeneous enclaves in their new countries of residence.  Research which groups of refugees typically move to your home state or country. What organizations or agencies are in your state that work with refugees? Investigate two of them – What are their missions, what options are there for refugees to receive help, and how can you get involved to help as a volunteer?
  3. What can you do?  Work with 2-3 other classmates to create an action plan for how your school can get involved in helping refugees. Think about: are there items you can donate to shelters, services you can provide, or awareness you raise?  Present your proposal to the class and democratically select the best one. Work together as a class to follow through with the plan.
  4. Thinking about the UNHCR refugee campaign aimed at helping the people of Bulgaria overcome the xenophobia. Create your own ad. While it does not have to be written in Bulgarian, think about the fears that might motivate people who wish to turn the refugees away. What could you say to help the people of Bulgaria better understand refugees, experience less fear, or be less violent?


Ms. Rita Ulrich is an contributor, with lessons focused on the 2010s refugee crisis in Bulgaria, as well as many other topics.  She graduated with a bachelors of science from Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, majoring in both social science education as well as psychology. Afterwards, she pursued a masters in international education from the University of Sydney, Australia. Ms. Ulrich began as a teacher rather unusually, by deciding to start her career overseas in Seoul, South Korea. After falling in love with the culture, she decided to stay for a total of four years, spending most of her time teaching both middle school and high school students. Then, Ms. Ulrich moved to Qinhuangdao, China, teaching at Northeastern University at Qinhuangdao working with freshmen and junior students. She returned to the United States in 2015 in order to continue teaching at an American school, becoming a recipient of the Fulbright-Hays award to Bulgaria and Greece in 2017. She currently teaches social studies and A.P. psychology at a college preparatory high school in North Carolina.