For refugees, no home sweet home

May 13

They are vague memories now: The first time Syrian tanks rolled into towns, the first shaky amateur videos of explosions in ordinary neighborhoods. At the beginning of the Syrian uprising three years ago, very few images were making it out of the country. French photographer Pierre Marsaut was one of the journalists who snuck across the border to change that. Freelancing for the French newspaper Le Monde in June 2011, Marsaut took photographs of Syrians fleeing advancing troops on foot.

Nearly three years later, Marsaut is still focused on telling the stories of Syrians. He has been documenting their experiences in Bulgaria, where they continue to experience hardship.


Bulgarian doctors perform checkups on Syrian children in Sofia in October. (Pierre Marsaut)

A Syrian refugee shaves in the Voenna Rampa camp in Bulgaria. (Pierre Marsaut)

Many of his photos were taken at the Voenna Rampa accommodation center, which has basically turned into a refugee camp. The facility, which is built to accommodate about 400 people, houses 700 to 800 people, according to Human Rights Watch. On any given day, the families living in the about 20 rooms are separated only by thin sheets hung to create the illusion of privacy. With scarce plumbing and few windows, refugees still try to take care of their spaces. Marsaut said what few photos the refugees have — sometimes of children who were left behind — are stuck to the walls.

The overwhelming influx of Syrians has put pressure on reception centers in Bulgaria, the European Union’s poorest country, leaving less room for migrants from other countries, including Afghanistan, Somalia and Mali. Aid workers and lawyers in Bulgaria say the speedier processing of asylum requests for Syrians also has fueled resentment.

Just across from another reception center in Sofia, Bulgaria, is a crumbly, abandoned building that migrants without a spot in the government-run reception centers take shelter in, sarcastically named the “5-Star Hotel” or the “Hotel Ritz.” The walls are marked up with signatures, obscenities and quotations from the Koran.

Migrants prepare to spend the night in the so-called "5-Star Hotel" in Sofia, Bulgaria. (Pierre Marsaut)
Migrants prepare to spend the night in the so-called "5-Star Hotel" in Sofia, Bulgaria. (Pierre Marsaut)

Marsaut also photographed and spoke with many of these migrants, who stay a month or more and cannot legally work. And almost all of them said they regret coming to Bulgaria.

Fewer people are joining them as Bulgaria pushes back against immigration. It has deployed 1,500 border guards and started building a 20-mile fence.  In the first five weeks of this year, only 99 people crossed into Bulgaria, compared with the 3,626 who arrived in October, the peak of migration, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Bulgaria is seen as a gateway to Western Europe, a place that could offer a better life. For many, though, it doesn’t.

“This is the thing I try to explain to every migrant I met: Don’t tell your friends to come in the country... just tell them to go somewhere else,” Marsaut said.

Marsaut continues to work on this project and is expanding the scope to include the migration route toward Western Europe.


Syrian refugees play football at the Voenna Rampa camp in Sofia, Bulgaria. (Pierre Marsaut)
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