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Warbnb: Nerves Fray, Resentments Mount As Bulgaria Evicts Ukrainian War Refugees From 'Luxury' Locales

Some 100,000 Ukrainian refugees are still being accommodated in Bulgaria. (file photo)
Some 100,000 Ukrainian refugees are still being accommodated in Bulgaria. (file photo)

Seaside hotels. Subsidized living. And summer just around the corner. It sounds like cause for envy.

Except that it describes the precarious existence of thousands of Ukrainians uprooted by war and now facing abrupt orders from Bulgarian authorities to clear out, pay up, or go home.

Officials including Prime Minister Kiril Petkov this week lamented the "luxury" that they've accorded to Ukrainians and hastily curtailed a relocation scheme for many of those same refugees, further distressing many displaced victims of Russia's invasion and prompting some to return home despite the risks.

Less than a month after Bulgaria said it was ending refugee reimbursements to hotels as the tourist season approached on its Black Sea coast, around 60,000 Ukrainians faced a deadline of June 1 to vacate hotels that became subsidized shelters amid a massive regional crisis.

"The Bulgarian state cannot continue to support such a luxurious stay in Bulgaria," Petkov, who took office in December 2021, said on May 31.

"For three months, we have given unprecedented support in some of the best hotels in Bulgaria. Now we are entering a slightly more normal framework, despite the fact that they are refugees. The Bulgarian state cannot continue to endlessly support such a luxury stay in Bulgaria -- [and] we are entering a reality that is closer to what is expected for refugees."

Amid concerns of a shortage in alternative facilities, senior officials this week accused refugees of failing to register their whereabouts or simply spurning buses and trains scheduled to take them to "buffer centers" and uncertain futures.

But statements from refugees and volunteer organizers suggested the Bulgarian government and its relevant agencies failed to fully communicate their plans to Ukrainians already victimized by war and struggling to keep abreast of Sofia's rapidly evolving relocation effort.

'Protection Is...Not An Obligation'

"We have no official information," Tetyana, a nurse who fled eastern Ukraine with her 13-year-old daughter after the outbreak of the war, told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service on May 30. "Absolutely none."

She and her daughter have been staying in a hotel in the cape resort of Sozopol since escaping in the family car from their home in Druzhkivka, a town in the Donbas region that had already changed hands twice since Russia-backed separatists took over swaths of Ukraine in 2014 and is currently threatened by the Russian military's pincer-like advances in the area.

Tetyana, a Ukrainian refugee, near Sozopol in Bulgaria.
Tetyana, a Ukrainian refugee, near Sozopol in Bulgaria.

Tetyana said neither she nor other refugees she spoke with had received any information about transportation to any refugee center, although she said she'd filled out an online survey announced weeks ago by Deputy Prime Minister Kalina Konstantinova.

"We were told that we would receive a preliminary notice 48 hours before the relocation -- either by e-mail, or by phone, or through our personal profile on the website," Tetyana said. "However, no one received anything. We also communicate with the people in the other hotels in Sozopol, [and] they didn't receive any information either."

She said there was no word yet on where she and her daughter might be sent.

"We checked some [sites] that could accommodate us ourselves, but the [refugee] Crisis Center responded by telling us that we have no right to accommodate ourselves. A few days later, they said we could accommodate ourselves: 'Just look for a place,'" Tetyana said. "First they told us not to check in on our own because the hotels would charge us, and then they told us that if we could find a place, we could move."

Konstantinova announced a new tack in a Ukrainian-language video released on May 30.

When only a tiny trickle of refugees turned up last week to board buses and trains organized by the government to take them from their current hotels to unspecified facilities, Konstantinova complained that too many Ukrainians granted temporary protection had failed to inform teams on the ground of their intentions for accommodation or to utilize the free transport.

As a result, Konstantinova said, only Ukrainian refugees "in real need, who have nowhere to go after May 31," would be accommodated at "buffer centers" in Elhovo, about 100 kilometers from the coast, and Sarafovo, near Burgas airport.

Ukrainian refugees at the Elhovo center in Bulgaria.
Ukrainian refugees at the Elhovo center in Bulgaria.

The rest, she suggested, must find their own way.

She added bluntly: "Protection is a right, not an obligation. Therefore, I will not allow any more empty buses or empty cars to leave. The development of the situation from that moment on is in the hands of the Ukrainian community in Bulgaria."

'Live Like Everyone Else'

Bulgaria is the European Union's poorest member, and opposition and other critics have accused Petkov's government of committing too few resources to cope with the flow of some of Ukraine's 6 million war refugees.

Nearly 300,000 Ukrainians have entered NATO-member Bulgaria since Russian tanks and troops rolled into Ukraine on February 24 in the largest military invasion in Europe since World War II.

Around 100,000 of them have been granted temporary shelter and protection, with most of the rest presumably continuing on to wealthier EU destinations.

As the peak season approached for hotels and other businesses on the Bulgarian Riviera, officials repeatedly announced and amended their plans for the tens of thousands of Ukrainians benefiting from a government program to reimburse hotels 40 levs a day ($22) for accommodating refugees.

Tourism Minister Hristo Prodanov warned in late April that Bulgaria had "accommodated and cared for" refugees for long enough, adding, "Now they must enter the labor market, find housing, pay rent, and live like everyone else."

In early May, officials said they would cease the hotel reimbursements at the end of the month and move refugees to unspecified facilities.

Days later, the chairwoman of the Bulgarian State Agency For Refugees, Maryana Tosheva, expressed confidence that "no one will be left out on the street" but acknowledged that there were 63,000 Ukrainian refugees in Bulgarian hotels and only around 33,000 vacancies in the state and local centers set up to take them.

She suggested the 30,000-person gap "will shrink a lot" as Ukrainians who "have said they want to leave the country" departed or found rent-free alternatives, including with relatives or acquaintances.

A few days later, Prime Minister Petkov's cabinet said it had changed its mind and would extend the reimbursement scheme -- but at a lower rate of 15 levs per day, eliciting some howls from hotel owners.

By late May, an adviser to Konstantinova said around 23,000 sites had applied to receive Ukrainian refugees under the new reimbursement policy.

But the Bulgarian Red Cross announced that by last week more Ukrainians were leaving the country than were arriving -- a first since Russia's invasion began three months ago.

Some Ukrainian refugees told Bulgarian media last week that they felt obliged to return to Ukraine despite the intensifying conflict and fears for their own safety.

"I'll go home because I don't know what will happen to us at the end of the month," Maryna, who is from Cherkasy, a central Ukrainian city of nearly 300,000 residents before the war, told Bulgarian national broadcaster BNT.

A 'Complete Vacuum'

"These people should be notified 48 hours before being taken somewhere, they should at least get a message. This is how it was described in the program," Maksym, a Ukrainian who helps other refugees in the port city of Burgas, told RFE/RL.

Instead, he said, he and other volunteers frequently learn where the transport buses are stopping "literally 30 minutes before they arrive in front of the hotels" and refugees are simply told, "'Get on the buses, we don't know where you will be taken,' or 'We won't tell you.'"

There has been a "complete vacuum" of information from the authorities, he said.

In an impassioned open letter on Facebook, one of the organizers of a Facebook page to help Ukrainian refugees in Bulgaria accused Konstantinova, Tosheva, and other officials of a "complete lack of communication with refugees from the moment they cross the border [and a] complete lack of understanding of needs."

In a point-by-point argument, Julianna Lisa Kylukina said virtually none of the public communications about the unfolding relocation were issued in Ukrainian and suggested officials were "indifferent" to the refugees' fates. She estimated that her group got more than 100 enquiries a day from Ukrainians -- mostly "mothers with children and the elderly" -- wanting to know how and where the resettlement will take place.

"For all three months, the refugee issue was resolved with the help of volunteers, ordinary residents of Bulgaria," Kylukina said, challenging the authorities. "And you created problem programs that volunteers had to solve!"

In Tsarevo, a southeastern seaside resort, hours before the June 1 deadline to vacate, Olena had registered with Bulgarian authorities but received no official information. She was scrambling to figure out how and where she and her daughter, mother, sister, and young niece could go.

Ukrainian refugee Olena (left) and members of her family have been staying in the Bulgarian resort of Tsarevo.
Ukrainian refugee Olena (left) and members of her family have been staying in the Bulgarian resort of Tsarevo.

"Those people who had cars returned to Ukraine or found a home to rent," she told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, "but we don't have that opportunity -- we don't have a car or money."

Olena and her family are from Zaporizhzhya, a southeastern Ukrainian hot spot in the current fighting.

"We're thinking of getting out of the hotel, going and checking centers one by one -- maybe someone will pick us up," she said.

Later, Olena expressed relief at having learned of a center that was continuing to house refugees and would accept them immediately.

Maria, a refugee from Odesa who helps as a volunteer in Primorsko, another coastal resort about 10 kilometers north of Tsarevo, is helping to move about 100 of her compatriots to a refugee site that is expected to close at the end of August.

She criticized officials' failure to call or e-mail any of 300 or so Ukrainians at a hotel there and said she was still awaiting a callback with specific information on May 31 from a government hotline.

"The result is that people don't feel protected here," Maria said. "And everyone is worried."

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Bulgarian Service correspondents Damyana Veleva, Yana Stroi, and Elitsa Simeonova
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    Damyana Veleva

    Damyana Veleva is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service. She graduated from the University of Heidelberg and the Free University of Berlin.

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    Yana Stroi

    Yana Stroi has been a journalist with RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service since 2022. She holds a master's degree in cinema and television art from the Kyiv National University of Theater, Film and Television. She has worked for Bloomberg TV Bulgaria as a reporter and producer.

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    Elitsa Simeonova

    Elitsa Simeonova is a correspondent in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. She previously was a correspondent in Sofia for RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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