Foreign media shame Bulgaria’s refugee hunters

Interview with Vesselin Dimitrov in Sofia, Bulgaria
Gangs of masked young men in camouflage gear, equipped with knives and sticks, are patrolling the frontier in dense forests between Turkey and Bulgaria. They are hunting for refugees, as they have done for months, but now they are less likely to boast about it.

refugee hunter 2 Bulgaria’s refugee hunters at the Bulgarian border (Photo: ECPMF/Vesselin Dimitrov)

TV coverage, newspaper headlines and videos posted on Facebook and YouTube show typical scenes: a group of young Afghan men being forced to lie face down on the ground. Their hands are bound with cable-ties, "Go back to Turkey" shouts one of their captors before the gang escorts them back the way they came.

This is just one of dozens of such incidents. The story broke first in the Bulgarian media, and the Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, impressed by the vigilantes’ patriotism, phoned one of their leaders to thank him personally. Border police chief Antonio Angelov has even made a special award to them. Newspaper and TV reports showed them as local heroes and an opinion poll by Alpha research showed that 54.8% of those surveyed approved of the actions.

But the uncritical coverage ceased when journalists and film crews from other parts of Europe arrived. Bulgarian journalist Vesselin Dimitrov, a member of ECPMF’s Supervisory Board, went out into the forest with a German news crew to investigate. He explained what happened to ECPMF’s Jane Whyatt:

Vesselin Dimitrov: This guy became the hero and the media star, catching refugees with his bare hands. And when I asked him for an interview, first he asked for money and then he said I had to contact his PR manager. So he has a PR now! But there are at least four groups now of people hunting refugees I the forest and I have written about two of them. They were quite easy to approach because obviously they think they have a cause. That’s the big problem – they think they are protecting Europe, and Bulgaria especially, from… they call them “invaders”.

What happened when the foreign media picked up the story?

How they are shown here in the local media is that they are heroes, which is totally weird and strange. And then the foreign media came and started criticising them and I suppose the Prime Minister must have gotten a call from Berlin or maybe Brussels because he suddenly changed his whole mindset. He says “On no, this is not right.” And someone from the government must have called up all the groups because from that point on they weren’t that keen on media attention. But they still continue to do their shifts at the weekends in the mountains.

And what do they do with the people they catch?

The ones who I interviewed said they’ve caught hundreds. But I seriously doubt that. They say that they treat them normally, they try to send them back to Turkey. If they don’t want to, then they call the border police. But they don’t do anything to them. There is a video that shows a group of three migrants where they tied their hands. But they claim that they were attacked by the migrants and that’s why they had to tie them.

So there was positive coverage in the Bulgarian media and that changed when international crews came here?

Of course you have some decent media outlets here that question what they are doing and state that it has lot of illegal aspects. You are not allowed to kick someone out. As soon as he comes here within the EU and says “I’m a refugee” then the case has to be decided by a court, not by some guys in a forest with camouflage clothes. It’s illegal to arrest people. But still Bulgarian media tend to say that’s OK.

You say they wear camouflage clothes. What about weapons? Are they paramilitaries?

In a way, yes. You could check the photos we made for Bild ( German newspaper). One guy is holding a knife and two of the others are holding sticks. They say that they use these for self-protection, they use the knives to cut the trees because these are deep forests. So they have machete knives to cut their way, apparently. I don’t think anyone has killed a refugee, but what these knives are used for - I don’t know.

What’s your impression – are they just young kids who’s been brainwashed, or is there something more?

This is one thing. They are patriotic and they don’t have anything else to do. They are lost people in a way, without any other hobbies. They have lost belief that something here could change for the better. They are people with low level jobs. One of them told me he earns two hundred euros a month. He’s completely lost hope and this moves him to hate the system and the world. It’s a mixture of plenty of aspects.

refugee hunter 1 Bulgaria’s refugee hunters at there patrol (Photo: ECPMF/Vesselin Dimitrov)

Are the groups affiliated? And is there any political organisation behind them?

At least two of the groups I know support each other. One of the leaders of the group is in house arrest now because as part of this pressure that came from the outside, the police came and took him. Two of the other groups are supporting him with a petition. As far as I know there is no political party or movement behind that. What surprised me this morning is…of course I follow them all on Facebook, they are very open and one of the groups has some 50,000 followers. Today I saw a sponsored link – they have paid Facebook to promote their page. Politically … well, if you have fifty thousand people all saying “You’re doing a great job” then at some point that could pop into their minds.

What about the police who have the actual job of patrolling the border?

The police is an interesting player in this. They feel harmed because someone else is doing their job. They are not that happy. They say “You can do whatever you want here, but it’s us to have to catch the migrants, so just give us a call.” But I think the border police feel threatened by them.

What role do people smugglers play in this?

This is a multi-billion business, these are organisations that are huge. You have maybe seven circles and the guys that are helping migrant cross the border here are maybe in the sixth or seventh circle. The smugglers rarely come with them, They just give them co ordinates with GPS, a Viber location or a Google Maps location where they should go. So they just keep walking and there is another one on the Bulgarian side to take them on. You also can see in the forest trees that are marked and there are marks on the roadsigns so it looks like these are spots used by smugglers. Just this morning there was a report of 37 people being caught in a bus, 37 migrants. But I still think there are many more coming over and not being caught at all.

To what extent are Bulgarians a part of the people-smuggling system?

I think Bulgarians are in the fifth, sixth, seventh circle. You wouldn’t want to work with these people. These are people that could really kill you. That first time, the truck that killed 72 people last year in Austria – the drivers were Bulgarians. But they were small-time criminals who just saw it as an easy way to make money. They are the lowest part of the system. But Sofia is a hotspot for smugglers, it’s known to be a hub.

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