Refugees die in Bulgarian forests fleeing Turkish deportation threats, evading Greek pushbacks

This photograph taken October 28, 2022, shows a car passing the border between Bulgaria and Turkey at Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint. AFP

At least 15 asylum seekers have lost their lives in July and August trying to traverse Bulgaria, which has become a hotspot for refugees seeking an alternate route into Europe amid increasing deportation threats in Turkey and harsh pushbacks by Greece, Turkish Minute reported, citing the Serbestiyet news website.

According to the story by reporter Memet Aksakal, Feyyaz Haşim from Idlib, Syria, died due to a drug given by smugglers purportedly to bolster his stamina so that he could endure the challenging march through densely forested areas in Bulgaria, where refugees try to make their way to Europe while avoiding detection by law enforcement.

Haşim was living in Turkey’s central Konya province with his older brother, who had come to Turkey from Syria about six years ago. He went to İstanbul from Konya to go to Europe and arranged with a smuggler to go to Serbia for 1,000 euros.

According to their agreement, the money was left with an intermediary in İstanbul.

When smugglers agree with refugees to take them to Europe, the set amount of money is not immediately given to the smuggler. After the smuggler takes the refugee to the promised destination, the refugee sends a video message to the guarantor to whom the money was entrusted and says he can give the money to the smuggler.

After Haşim gave 1,000 euros to a guarantor in İstanbul on July 24, he left İstanbul for Turkey’s northwestern Kırklareli province and crossed into Bulgaria with a group of 20 people.

A relative of Haşim who lives in Konya told Serbestiyet what happened after the group crossed into Bulgaria:

“After the group had walked for a long time in the forest under harsh conditions, the refugees were exhausted and the smugglers gave them Captagon pills and energy drinks as a stimulant so that they could continue their walk. Feyyaz, who took the Captagon due to extreme fatigue, had a seizure and collapsed. The smuggler there, who must have had previous experience, predicts that Feyyaz will die, makes a video and tells Feyyaz that ‘he cannot continue on his own, that he will hand himself over to the Bulgarian police and that the 1,000 euros left with the guarantor in Istanbul should be given to the smuggler.”

Captagon, first produced in 1961 as a milder alternative to amphetamines, was utilized by militaries for alertness and courage enhancement. However, by the 1980s, the US had labelled it a controlled substance without accepted medical use, leading to a halt in its production.

Haşim also had bruises on his body that indicates he was beaten by the smugglers, his relative told Serbestiyet. In addition to Haşim, the bodies of 14 refugees have been found in the forests of Bulgaria in July and August alone, according to the report.

As Greece faces international backlash for documented human rights abuses against asylum seekers, Bulgaria has emerged as an alternative. Though Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest member, has never seen high numbers of asylum seekers, those who arrive typically aim to cross its borders and wait in Sofia for their refugee status.

This new wave towards Bulgaria is driven, in part, by recent events in Turkey.

Refugees in Turkey are frequently targeted by Turkish politicians, who hold them responsible for the social and economic problems in the country. The anti-Syrian rhetoric has gained momentum, especially during the May 14 elections and the May 28 presidential runoff.

Turkey, despite hosting 3.6 million Syrians under temporary protection, remains fraught with challenges for these individuals. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who recently won re-election, has pledged to repatriate 1 million Syrians. This commitment comes despite ongoing reports of Syrians being forcibly deported to their war-torn homeland.

The Turkish government, having announced the deportation of unregistered Syrian refugees from İstanbul by Sept. 24, has added to the refugees’ distress. With the threat of being forcibly returned to war-torn Syria, many see perilous routes like the one through Bulgaria as their only hope.

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