The Education and Integration of Refugees in Bulgaria During the COVID-19 Pandemic

This year, the world has been shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the globe, we can see the impact this virus had and still has on the economic and political stability of governments, on the healthcare systems and on society. Focusing on the latter, the impacts of the pandemic on society are many and sometimes severe. Many vulnerable groups are barely able to make ends meet, many people have lost their jobs and find themselves to be financially unstable. Within this category of vulnerable groups, are also refugees. What happened to refugee camps and shelters once the pandemic hit and countries initiated state of emergency protocols? What happened to their lives, wellbeing and hope for a better and safe future? Bulgaria is a country which has seen an influx of refugees throughout the past few years. According to data from The World Bank, in 2019 Bulgaria has registered a total of 20,438 refugees.1 Although Bulgaria is not considered a final destination for the majority of refugees seeking asylum, many end up staying here, especially during the pandemic. As a country which does not host many refugees, providing education and integration opportunities to refugee children and adults can become a rather difficult and crucial task in the time of COVID-19.

According to the State Agency for Refugees (SAR), the highest number of applications of refugees seeking asylum in Bulgaria has been growing throughout the Spring months of 2020, with the most amount of applications received this August- 1053 (see table below).2

As it can be seen, many more men than women have seeked asylum in the country. In January, 35 asylum seekers were granted refugee status and 62 humanitarian protection. In February, 61 were granted refugee status and 140 humanitarian protection. For March, 65 people were registered under the refugee status and 157 under humanitarian protection. For April, 65 people were granted refugee status and 147 humanitarian protection. In May, 66 people were granted refugee status and 169 humanitarian protection/ status. In June, 69 were granted refugee status and 241 humanitarian protection/ status. In July, 77 were given refugee status and 305 humanitarian protection/ status. Finally in August, 80 were given refugee status and 322 were granted humanitarian protection/ status.3 Every refugee granted refugee status or humanitarian protection/status can choose to stay in a refugee camp for a year (on average), until he or she finds a home, employer, etc.4 The amount of refugees living in refugee camps/asylum centers on the territory of Bulgaria, as of March 2020 are 380. Only 7% of the asylum centers’ capacities are currently being filled.5 This means that many centers, workers and equipment are not being used.

Bulgaria announced a state of emergency on March 13th 2020, which banned amongst other things, intercity travel, social events, school activities and trips. SAR also implemented anti- COVID measures for refugees and asylum seekers. These measures included terminating group activities, such as school classes and extracurriculars. At the same time, visitors were not allowed and the reception centers were suspended. Any asylum procedures requiring in person participation from the individual or a third party were put to a halt. Regular COVID-19 informational sessions and meetings were held in all asylum centers. Newly arrived asylum seekers were registered and placed under a 14-day quarantine and former residents of the centers were allowed to re-enter them, if they required additional assistance and could no longer live independently. The transfer of asylum seekers to and from other EU member states was suspended however.6

According to the “Coming Together for Refugee Education” Report by UNHCR, the pandemic can and will have long-lasting effects on the education of refugees across the globe.7Asylum centers across Bulgaria implemented a distance learning program, which involved online classes and the use of social media platforms. Wherever and whenever this was not possible, like in the refugee camp in Harmanli, social workers distributed printed materials to all of the children. By June 2020, 106 children were registered in Bulgarian schools around the country, as schools were scheduled to open and have in-person classes for the 2020- 2021 academic year.8 SAR distributed materials, such as notebooks, textbooks, pens and pencils to all registered children. Transportation is also provided to these children from the centers to the schools and back.9

Regardless of these efforts and support being provided by refugee centers, it is no surprise that the social isolation (which to an extent existed before the pandemic as well) has not been easy for these children. The refugees living outside of these centers are even more vulnerable, as many of them do not have the ability to provide the resources the asylum centers have, themselves. While experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety and insomnia during the pandemic is not uncommon in all age groups and social groups around the world, refugees are an even more vulnerable group, susceptible to such psychological issues. The additional isolation of not being at school, in a class with other Bulgarian children, impacts the refugees’ ability to integrate into society and live a healthy life amongst their peers. Therefore, additional support, attention and care for this vulnerable group is extremely necessary.

When it comes to adults, The National Program for Employment and Training of Refugees in Bulgaria with the aim to help refugees find employment within the country, has an important role. According to the World Economic Forum, refugees are 60% more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic.10 There are 54 identified refugees as of March 2020 on the territory of Bulgaria who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. The numbers have been expected to rise since then, although there is no statistical data. With the help of SAR and other NGOs, a list of organizations offering employment was compiled, for these refugees to apply to. Despite this, only three refugees were offered a job. SAR and NGOs such as Karitas and the Red Cross have been delivering food and aid packages to the families and individuals where there is unemployment.11


It is hard enough for a Syrian, Iranian, Iraqi or Moroccan12 refugee (the majority of refugees seeking asylum in Bulgaria come from these 4 countries), to become part of society in Bulgaria, but it becomes an especially difficult task when one is unemployed. Having a job and working with others is an essential part of integration within the local community. When this opportunity is taken away, the refugees who are now unemployed have a harder time integrating. Additionally, the refugees that find themselves financially unstable after losing their jobs have to find alternative ways to make ends meet, oftentimes these alternative methods being illegal. Poverty as well as the lack of opportunity for integration can impact the families’ social standing and place in society, frequently making them the “others”.

Overall, refugees are a vulnerable group of people in search for a better, stable and safe future for themselves and their families. In the time of a pandemic, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, these people find themselves to be an even more vulnerable group, having to seek external support, from organizations such as governmental agencies and NGOs. In a country like Bulgaria, which does not host many refugees, and for which the sphere of refugee support may not be as well developed and focused on as in neighboring countries, having an agency like SAR implement all of the necessary protocols and assistance is crucial for the future of these refugee families. Continuing the process of integration and education of refugees on the territory of the country is one of great importance, especially during these uncertain times.


1 “Refugee Population by Country or Territory of Asylum – Bulgaria,” 2019, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SM.POP.REFG?locations=BG.

2“Statistical Data- Amount of People Seeking Asylum in 2020,” State Agency for Refugees, August 2020,
https://aref.government.bg/sites/default/files/uploads/docs/2020-09/C-Yearly-Applications-2020_08.xlsx.

3 “Statistical Data- Decisions for Asylum Seekers,” State Agency for Refugees, 2020,
https://aref.government.bg/sites/default/files/uploads/docs/2020-09/Applications-Decisions%202020_08.xlsx.

4 “Приемателни Центрове: Качество На Живот и Услуги – UNHCR България,” UNHCR (UNHCR, 2016), https://www.unhcr.org/bg/103-bgkakvo-pravim-niemonitoring-na-usloviyata-za-priempriematelni-centrove-html.ht
ml.

5 Бояна Маркова, “Центровете За Бежанци у Нас Празни На 93%,” March 4, 2020,
https://news.bg/bulgaria/tsentrovete-za-bezhantsi-u-nas-prazni-na-93.html.

6 Bulgaria, State Agency for Refugees (Държавна агенция за бежанците) (2020), ‘Measures to limit the spread of
COVID19’ (‘Мерки за ограничаване на разпространението на COVID-19’), Press release, 23 March 2020.

7 “Доклад На ВКБООН: Коронавирусът Застрашава Достъпа До Образование На Децата Бежанци – UNHCR
България,” UNHCR, 2020, https://www.unhcr.org/bg/12299-obrazovanie-deca_bejanci.html.

8 “Обучение По Време На COVID-19,” State Agency for Refugees, July 13, 2020, https://aref.government.bg/index.php/bg/node/375.


9 “На Добър Час През Новата Учебна 2020-2021 Година,” State Agency for Refugees, September 15, 2020, https://aref.government.bg/index.php/bg/node/393.

10 Journalist Written by Nellie Peyton, “Refugees Working in Shops and Cafes Have Been Hit Hardest by Coronavirus,” World Economic Forum, 2020, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/07/working-in-shops-and-cafes-refugees-hardest-hit-by-coronavirus-jobs-cuts.

11 “Взетите Мерки в България и Отражението Им в Общността,” UNHCR (UNHCR, 2020),
https://www.unhcr.org/bg/wp-content/uploads/sites/18/2020/05/01-2020-AcademiaBulletin.pdf.

12 “Refugee Population by Country or Territory of Asylum – Bulgaria,” 2019, et al.


Bibliography

Peyton, Nellie “Refugees Working in Shops and Cafes Have Been Hit Hardest by Coronavirus.” World Economic Forum, 2020. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/07/working-in-shops-and-cafes-refugees-hardest-hit-by-coronavirus-jobs-cuts.

Bulgaria, State Agency for Refugees (Държавна агенция за бежанците) (2020), ‘Measures to limit the spread of COVID19’ (‘Мерки за ограничаване на разпространението на COVID-19’), Press release, 23 March 2020.

“Refugee Population by Country or Territory of Asylum – Bulgaria,” 2019. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SM.POP.REFG?locations=BG.

“Statistical Data- Amount of People Seeking Asylum in 2020.” State Agency for Refugees,
August 2020. https://aref.government.bg/sites/default/files/uploads/docs/2020-09/C-Yearly-Applications2020_08.xlsx.

“Statistical Data- Decisions for Asylum Seekers.” State Agency for Refugees, 2020. https://aref.government.bg/sites/default/files/uploads/docs/2020-09/Applications-Decisions
%202020_08.xlsx.

Маркова, Бояна. “Центровете За Бежанци у Нас Празни На 93%,” March 4, 2020.
https://news.bg/bulgaria/tsentrovete-za-bezhantsi-u-nas-prazni-na-93.html.

“Взетите Мерки в България и Отражението Им в Общността.” UNHCR. UNHCR,
2020. https://www.unhcr.org/bg/wp-content/uploads/sites/18/2020/05/01-2020-AcademiaBulletin
.pdf.

“Доклад На ВКБООН: Коронавирусът Застрашава Достъпа До Образование На
Децата Бежанци – UNHCR България.” UNHCR, 2020. https://www.unhcr.org/bg/12299-obrazovanie-deca_bejanci.html.

“На Добър Час През Новата Учебна 2020-2021 Година.” State Agency for Refugees, September 15, 2020. https://aref.government.bg/index.php/bg/node/393.

“Обучение По Време На COVID-19.” State Agency for Refugees, July 13, 2020. https://aref.government.bg/index.php/bg/node/375.

“Приемателни Центрове: Качество На Живот и Услуги – UNHCR България.” UNHCR. UNHCR, 2016.
https://www.unhcr.org/bg/103-bgkakvo-pravim-niemonitoring-na-usloviyata-za-priemprie
matelni-centrove-html.html


About the author:

Izabel Trizlova has a bachelor’s degree from SLU-Madrid in International Relations and International Studies and a master’s degree from New Bulgarian University, Bulgaria in International Security, Migration and Diplomacy. She is also a member of the Mediterranean Youth Association (AGDER) which “contributes to the social and cultural development of young people, to carry out studies in the fields of education, health and sports, to contribute to the improvement of youth policies, to help solidarity and solidarity among youth”. Izabel is a college counselor and the international student coordinator at an international school in Bulgaria which allows her to help young people integrate into society and receive the best education possible. She is extremely passionate about the topics of counter-terrorism, human right and refugee issues. 

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