Written by Tihomir Hristov exclusively for SouthFront; Edited by Yoana
In late 2013, the far-right Bulgarian nationalist Boyan Stoyanov “Rasate”, leader of “National Forum “Obedinenie” and the founder of the “Bulgarian National Alliance” (BNA) announced that he is planning to form civil patrols in Sofia to tackle the problem of illegal immigration, which, according to his words, “is causing chaos and crime”. Such was the aftermath of the incident when a young cashier at a gas station nearly got stabbed to death by a foreigner in Sofia, not far from one of the local refugee centers. The movement has been in full swing for 2 weeks already before it finally drew the attention of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Bulgaria as well as the mayor of Sofia, Yordanka Fandakova. Asen Genov, a popular Bulgarian blogger, made a comment on Deutsche Welle [“Докато търсих “патрулите” на Расате”, Tatyana Vaksberg, 23 November 2013] describing the members of the movement as “predominantly male, barely over 25, dressed in black and wearing baseball caps, operating in groups of 3 to 5 people”. However, it was soon decided that they did not constitute substantial threat to the public order and generally went ignored by the authorities.
In 2015, Europe saw a considerable increase in immigration, most of it illegal, culminating in various clashes between the migrants and the authorities. In mid-October, a Bulgarian border guard, accompanied by two colleagues, fired multiple warning shots at a group of 53 Afghan immigrants trespassing the border. A stray bullet allegedly hit one of the trespassers ultimately killing him. The guard was later acquitted in court.
The idea of Rasate was now revived among nationalist groups. Only in the town of Topolovgrad, close to the Turkish border, fears of a large influx of illegal immigrants into the state drew more than 200 volunteers willing to protect their families and homes to the cause, and alarmed the local city council enough for the mayor to request military equipment from the Bulgaria’s Ministry of Defence in the capacity of 2 armored personnel carriers, an armored reconnaissance vehicle, 2 flatbed military trucks, 30 assault rifles, tents and camouflage in case of escalation at the borders with Greece and Turkey. Self-described “patriots” started forming squads of up to a dozen people each with the mindset to assist the border patrol and the army, who they considered to be “undermanned” and “undersupplied” for dealing with the refugee crisis.
Initially, these civilian groups were welcomed by most border guards, however in late February 2016, the attitude towards them became controversial when a civilian named Dinko Valev, decried by BBC as a “vigilante”, and named a “hero” by local media, assisted by his friend, who were casually riding in their ATV’s at the time, captured a group of 12 Syrian men who were illegally crossing the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov commented on the issue at hand: “Any help for the police, for the border police and for the state is welcome. Anyone who helps deserves gratitude”. Mr. Valev published a video on Facebook, intending to show how the illegal immigrants are being detained. The 29-year-old wrestler pleaded to other Bulgarians to join his cause in defending what he considered sacred. The Department of Justice of Bulgaria soon started to investigate him on charges of “kidnapping”.
A few weeks later, a similar incident happened in Strandzha, a mountainous area alongside the Bulgarian-Turkish border, when nearly a dozen citizens, along with a TV crew, singlehandedly captured 26 people of Afghan origin. A part of the volunteers held membership in the so called “Organization for the defense of Bulgarian citizens”. They notified the border police to detain them officially but instead nearly got arrested themselves on charges of “illegal activities”, though they claimed to have “always been cooperating with the authorities and acting at their permission”.
With each publicized arrest, a growing number of Human Rights groups like the “Bulgarian Helsinki Committee” doubted the legality of such organizations and insisted that its members should be prosecuted. In the early April 2016, yet another accident drew the attention of the international media when a group referring to itself as “Civilian detachments for the protection of women and faith” captured 3 individuals of Afghan origin who had just crossed Bulgaria illegally. They were restrained with zip ties and allegedly verbally abused. After the publishing of the video on social media and substantial international pressure, Bulgaria announced that authorities have begun investigation on the so called “migrant hunters” and have arrested the group’s leader Petar Nizamov “Perata”, who is facing up to 6 years in prison. He was released on bail and is currently being held under house arrest. Upon leaving the district court of Malko Tarnovo, he recited the Bulgarian dissident poet, who was later sentenced to death by firing squad for his communist beliefs, Nikola Vaptzarov’s early 1940’s poem “The fight is brutally cruel”. The text’s ending is as follows: “But in the storm we will be with you, my people, because we loved you”. Mr. Nizamov finished by saying “Long live Bulgaria!”.
It is subject to debate whether we will see either one of those “migrant hunters” being found guilty due to their popularity in Bulgaria and the prime minister’s unclear stance on the subject. That, what is regarded by some as a serious problem, was not taken seriously by the authorities for a reasonable amount of time, who did not respond to the developing crisis until it gained coverage by the international media.