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The Refugee Conundrum

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Kafka, the supreme critic of bureaucratic corruption wrote, “In front of the law there is a doorkeeper. A man from the countryside comes up to the door and asks for entry… ‘If you’re ever tempted give it a try, try and go in even though I say you can’t. Careful though, I’m powerful. And I’m only the lowliest of doormen. But there’s a doorkeeper for each of the rooms…It’s more than I can stand to look at the third one.’”

While the West is finally aware of the Syrian crisis, we are focused on the spectacle of war rather than the prosaic reality of resettlement. The brutality of ISIL and Assad is awesome and unfathomable. We can rally behind decisions to exterminate them and their nihilistic crusade. However, the fate of the refugees is unbearable to witness. People are frustrated by the colossus of inaction and the infinity plus one dilemma. As Kafka noted, there is a doorkeeper in front of each of the rooms that the Syrian refugees have attempted to enter. Sometimes it manifests as overt malice as was seen with Petra Laszlo, the Hungarian photographer who tripped a father carrying his child as he ran, but more often the doorkeeper is a silent system, devoid of empathy or logic. It takes the form of bigotry, burglary, inadequacy, poverty, and ignorance invisible in the face of warlords and dictators. But we are watching.

For the past two summers, I have worked under the umbrella of an organization from the University of Oxford called Oxford Aid to the Balkans, at the main Syrian refugee camps in Sofia, Bulgaria: Voenna Rampa and Ovcha Kupel. The West hears about the refugees and their rubber dinghies in Turkey and Greece, and their eventual asylum in Germany or Austria. Yet, there are black holes for them along the way, so devastating in nature that many have chosen the Aegean instead, as Rick Lyman of the New York Times recently pointed out. Bulgaria is one of those way stations. Situated between Turkey and Western Europe, it is an inevitable step in the overland journey out of Syria, but as the poorest member of the EU, it is ill equipped to handle its allotted influx.

This past summer, Germany suspended the Dublin regulation, requiring refugees to remain in their port of entry, unfairly burdening certain countries with a staggering number of refugees. Yet the path from Bulgaria to Germany is dangerous and expensive, and many remain on the outskirts of Sofia indefinitely. Before entering, many of the families live in Turkey for some time, hoping to earn enough money for their eventual pilgrimage to the West. Once they are ready to cross the border, they must wade for days through a thick, unforgiving forest where they are ultimately met by the Bulgarian border police, who have made it their business to loot and brutalize the refugees. Mobile phones—the essential navigation device—are stolen and drunken guards send many back until a satisfactory bribe is presented. The ones that make it across the border are met with incarceration at one of Bulgaria’s many converted detention centers under the Ministry of the Interior or makeshift reception centers run by the State Agency for Refugees.

The sight of these camps is horrifying. While renovations were made to the exteriors to please inspectors, the interior conditions remain grim. Multiple families often share a room with sheets hung as dividers, while single men are kept in a filthy, dark corridor. Toilets do not flush and toilet paper is not provided. Bathroom floors are constantly filled with water and the sinks are used for teeth brushing, baby washing, and food cooking. A typhoid outbreak graced the halls of Voenna Rampa, a year ago and a young girl died at Ovcha Kupel a year before that. Children run about unattended and parents sit in the thin border of shade in the schoolyard with deadened eyes. The boredom is unbearable. Money is being poured at the situation, but it is diverted into the hands of the camp administrations. There are no external audits conducted by the EU, and while everyone turns a blind eye, the administrators stockpile the funds and scorn their charges.

This inglorious and tedious reality faced by the victims of the Syrian Civil War is an interlocked web of useless humiliation, competing agendas, greed, and bureaucratic inaction. There is no end date in sight as we debate over logistics and forget we are gambling with lives. As we chip slowly away at the mountains of legislation, children are without an education, university students are denied degrees, fathers are jobless. We are growing too accustomed and weary of such plights in this world. Our senses have been numbed from centuries of irrational violence with a seeming capacity for infinitude. Despite the numbers, and the geopolitical murkiness, despite the complexity of the solution and the layers of prejudice we hold within ourselves, we must stand down the doorkeepers. The scale and stakes demand it of us all.