We welcome the efforts that Bulgaria is making to assist refugees in promoting livelihoods and economic inclusion

The representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Bulgaria (UNHCR) - Mr. NL Narasimha Rao, is at the end of his term in our country. He took office in April 2020 during a severe crisis in the world - refugees, Covid 19, and then refugees again.

Even before the escalation of recent events in Ukraine, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency has had a longstanding presence in the country and in the surrounding region. UNHCR has been working in Ukraine since 1994, alongside local authorities, partners and community organizations to deliver protection and humanitarian assistance to people in need.

Since February, the international armed conflict in Ukraine has caused civilian casualties and the destruction of infrastructure and UNHCR has massively scaled up its operations in response. This is to ensure that people forced to flee find safety and assistance – whether in their own country or another.

Bulgaria is among the countries in the region that has received a considerable number of people that have been forced to flee the conflict. To date more than 500,000 refugees have crossed into Bulgaria from Ukraine, mainly via Romania. So far 124,000 have applied for Temporary Protection following the unprecedented decision in May by the European Union to offer Temporary Protection to refugees fleeing Ukraine. Out of that number, currently some 85,000 remain in Bulgaria.

This is what Mr. Narasimha Rao shared for "Diplomatic Spectrum" about the ongoing role of UNHCR in the country in these critical times.

- Are Ukrainian refugees continuing to head to Bulgaria?

- The situation in Ukraine remains highly unpredictable and volatile, and displacement, both within the country and in the immediate region will continue unless the armed conflict stops.

We have seen that a number of refugees that initially sought safety and protection in Romania continued their journey and entered Bulgaria – that number is over half a million. However, the majority of those that entered Bulgaria since the start of the armed conflict have since departed to other countries, mainly to Greece and Turkey. Currently, Bulgaria hosts between 85 and 86,000 Ukrainian refugees.

We expect to see refugee flows from Romania to Bulgaria increase further if the security situation deteriorates in the south, close to Odesa, Mykolaiv and other areas directly affected by the hostilities.    

UNHCR and its partners are prepared for a range of possible scenarios and are in constant dialogue with the Bulgarian government, which is leading the humanitarian response. We are also coordinating within and amongst neighboring countries regarding any possible serious increases in cross border movements as part of the overall Regional Response Plan. This plan outlines a comprehensive response and activities to support countries’ efforts to protect and assist refugees coming from Ukraine.

- How is Bulgaria handling the situation?

- We applaud the government’s efforts for keeping the border open to refugees from Ukraine. It was one of the first countries in the EU to offer temporary protection and the government was quick to respond to provide accommodation and other services to the refugees.

The people of Bulgaria have already shown great support, and we hope that this solidarity will continue. UNHCR is working hand in hand with the Bulgarian authorities at all levels and stands ready to continue support efforts by the government and other stakeholders to find solutions and provide humanitarian assistance wherever necessary and possible.

We welcome the efforts that Bulgaria is making to assist refugees in promoting livelihoods and economic inclusion. Currently more than 7,200 refugees have found work in Bulgaria with the help of the Employment Agency. This allows them to provide for their families’ needs, maintain their dignity, and become more resilient and be empowered to shape their future.

While we fully understand the desire of many refugees to go back home to reunite with their families, for many it may not be possible in the near future. We therefore, support mid and long-term solutions for refugees to become self-reliant. In June, we organized a job fair where over 30 employers met with Ukrainian refugees offering jobs in a range of sectors from tech, trade and finance to manufacturing services. And we are looking to even more company partnerships that can train and hire refugees.

UNHCR commends Bulgaria for initially offering accommodation to more than 50,000 refugees. We acknowledge the decision taken by the Bulgarian Council of Ministers to extend the current hotel accommodation scheme for some 22,687 people until 30 September.

However, more sustainable long-term accommodation solutions need to be urgently identified. It is important for refugees to be able to access education and healthcare, yet unless the government can propose a more durable housing solution they will continue to run into problems. It will also be more difficult for people to be able to find suitable employment.

UNHCR encourages the Bulgarian government to explore the possibility of private accommodation, which has also been implemented in other EU countries as a long-term solution.

- What is UNHCR doing to help?

- We have stepped up our operations and capacity in Ukraine and neighboring countries and, together with our partners, we are scaling up support in order to assist complement the Government’s response. For example, we have pre-positioned emergency core relief items such as mattresses, pillows and kitchen sets as well as diapers and winter clothing.

UNHCR has also scaled up its protection and monitoring activities and together with UNICEF and other partners we opened up 6 Blue Dots throughout the country. They are located in Sofia, Burgas as well as in Ruse and Durankulak at the Bulgarian-Romanian border. Blue Dots provide a safe space, support and referrals for health care, legal, education, psychosocial support and more. They bring together critical protection services and information for refugees fleeing the conflict in Ukraine, with a particular focus on children and those at greatest risk, including unaccompanied and separated children, persons with disabilities, cases of suspected trafficking, survivors of sexual or gender-based violence and refugees from the LGBTIQ+ community.

We are also happy to announce that UNHCR, together with our partner the Bulgarian Red Cross have started to roll out financial, one-time cash assistance or "Cash For Protection", to the most vulnerable refugees that are living in Burgas where the vast majority of refugees currently reside. We are looking to expand this cash assistance to vulnerable refugees living in Sofia and Varna as well very soon. 

We anticipate that the "Cash for Protection" programme will help approximately 10,000 of the most vulnerable refugees currently living in Bulgaria.

The photo was provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Bulgaria. In it: Mr. NL Narasimha Rao, UNHCR representative in our country.