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UN refugee chief urges EU-wide effort for Syrians

Nov. 23, 2013 2:41 P.M. (Updated: Nov. 23, 2013 2:41 P.M.)
SOFIA (AFP) -- UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres on Friday called for the European Union to step up support for countries like Bulgaria coping with an influx of Syrian refugees living in overcrowded camps.

The EU needs to mobilize and show "solidarity ... especially when some countries like Bulgaria have more limited resources and are at the external border of the union," Guterres told journalists after visiting a refugee camp in Sofia with EU humanitarian aid commissioner Kristalina Georgieva.

Bulgaria, the bloc's poorest member, has been completely overwhelmed by the arrival this year of almost 10,000 refugees -- 60 percent of them Syrian -- crossing over illegally from Turkey.

Appalling conditions in overcrowded shelters at the start of winter and a backlog of humanitarian status claims have prompted the Bulgarian government to demand European help, including the possibility of moving refugees to other states.

"It is very important that European countries all over the continent keep their borders open, accept Syrian refugees and provide them with adequate assistance," Guterres said.

"European solidarity with this population that is suffering so much is at the present moment paramount," he added.

Bulgaria started turning non-Syrian refugees back at the border this month and plans to build a 20-mile fence in one area.

Guterres pledged to send a technical team to Bulgaria next week to improve refugee reception and help speed up asylum procedures amid growing discontent among Syrians in the shelters.

"We thought that this is Europe but we were mistaken. We want to head west as soon as possible," said a 34-year-old Syrian refugee, Yusuf Kuka, at the Vrazhdebna camp on the outskirts of Sofia on Friday.

"We have waited for two months already, in vain, and the conditions here are dangerous for the children," added another refugee, Ralfa Gennan, from the city of Homs.

The run-down former school building at Vrazhdebna was turned into a makeshift shelter by the government and is now home to about 400 people, mostly women and children from Syria's northeastern region of Qamishli.

They complained about the lack of enough living space, the shortage of blankets, and the poor hygiene in the few toilets and bathrooms in the building.

But they also said their major concern was the lack of information on their status claims.

About 100 women and children blocked Guterres' way out of the courtyard, shouting "Passports! Passports."

The death from a heart attack of a 32-year-old Syrian man in another camp in Sofia this week sparked tensions, with refugees throwing stones at police deployed to maintain order, injuring one officer.

About 100 refugees in a camp in Harmanli, near the border, have also launched a hunger strike to protest the conditions in the tents and metal containers there, which were condemned by Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders as "inhumane."
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