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In endless caravans of cars, buses and trains, more than a quarter of a million Bulgarians of Turkish descent have streamed into Turkey in the last three months, forming one of Europe’s largest refugee flows since World War II.
The Turks, Muslims whose families lived in Bulgaria for generations, say they are fleeing a harsh campaign of assimilation intended to erase their ethnic and religious identity.
The campaign began five years ago. After clashes in May with Turkish protesters in eastern Bulgaria, the authorities in Sofia have apparently decided to let a significant number of what they regard as a troublesome minority leave. Pressure to Leave
At first, some Turks were forcibly expelled by the Bulgarian authorities for leading anti-Government resistance. But most of those who have followed have received milder forms of pressure to go, and they have willingly fled even though it has meant leaving behind property, bank accounts and, in some instances, family members.
With newly issued passports in hand, valid only for travel to Turkey, they have crossed the border at an accelerating rate that now exceeds 4,000 people a day. The relentless exodus has far outstripped early expectations, and the Turkish Government is having trouble keeping pace.Continue reading the main story
As of today, 279,000 Bulgarian Turks have arrived, with many finding shelter among relatives but with tens of thousands of others filling tent cities or crowding into empty school dormitories and classrooms.
Bulgaria’s Communist Government denies persecuting the Turks and, noting that they have been issued three-month tourist visas, says they are simply taking advantage of more liberal travel policies covering all Bulgarians. Government officials have accused Turkey of seeking to reap propaganda benefits from the situation, and they have pointed out that the Turks themselves have often been accused of mistreating their Kurdish minority. Tide May Reach 400,000
How many more Turks will leave is unclear, but Turkish officials and foreign diplomats say the tide could easily reach 400,000 people by summer’s end. What happens after that is anyone’s guess, and it seems to depend heavily on the Bulgarian Government.
There are reports of damaging labor shortages in Turkish zones of Bulgaria, and recent arrivals say friends and relatives have suddenly had their passports withdrawn. In particular, they say, young men of draft age are not being allowed to leave with their families, and valued farmers like tobacco growers must produce a specified quantity of crops, or the cash equivalent, before they can go.
Diplomatic efforts to control the flow, including informal mediation by the Soviet Union, have produced no significant results. Nor have expressions of concern by the United States and other Western countries. Many refugees bitterly criticize the West as too slow to react to their plight.
The Turkish Government, which has made no appeal for international financial help, says it is prepared to accept all of the estimated 1.5 million Bulgarian Turks, and some warn that Ankara may eventually have to make good on its pledge. ”Our people tell us that the vast majority of Turks in Bulgaria say they are prepared to go,” a Western diplomat in Ankara said. A Vaccination Scare
The flow has been orderly for the most part.
Fears were raised in July as reports circulated that some Turkish children had been given vaccinations of an unspecified nature as they left Bulgaria. That gave rise to rumors among the refugees that their youngsters were injected with lethal diseases, including the AIDS virus, but Turkish officials say there is no evidence of physical harm. Still, the World Health Organization said it would investigate.
Generally, the newcomers – farmers, factory workers, laborers and smaller numbers of teachers and physicians – seem in good health, and some have already found work here.
But the sheer size and suddenness of the influx are creating serious difficulties, especially at way stations in western Turkey that are popular among the arrivals. It seems clear, officials say, that before long many Bulgarians will have to be resettled in different regions of the country.
”I don’t think that jobs and housing can be found for all of them here,” said O. Naci Sozer, acting governor of Bursa Province. Bursa is a magnet for previous waves of immigrants from Bulgaria and now the preferred destination for one of every four newcomers. Living in Classrooms
Bursa, south of Istanbul across the Sea of Marmara, illustrates the problem well, especially in its dozens of public schools, where 15,000 Bulgarian Turks have taken temporary shelter. Classrooms bulge with as many as 30 people, all of them surrounded by mounds of bundles and boxes containing whatever possessions they could carry with them.
In a few weeks, they will have to find somewhere else to live because the schools must get ready for the new academic year. Government officials say they have alternative housing plans, which include rent subsidies, but details have not been made public and some of the arrangements may ultimately fall short if the human flow increases dramatically.
Noting that the migrants have been issued three-month tourist visas, Bulgaria insists that all may return except for the relatively few who were expelled. But in dozens of interviews at the border and at relocation centers elsewhere, the Turks say that they consider themselves refugees and have no intention of going back.
”Those who are coming here lived in a hell,” said Avni Velioglu, who was a high-school teacher in Kircali. ”They applied for passports, yes, but they lived in a hell, and they’re ready to give up everything to come here.”
A senior Government official in Ankara said about 300 Bulgarians have returned home in recent weeks. He said their aim is to help other family members emigrate, but Western news reports from Bulgaria quote some of those who have returned as complaining about difficulties encountered in Turkey. Assimilation Campaign
The Bulgarian Turks’ problems have been building since 1984, when Sofia began its campaign of forced assimilation and religious repression.
Ethnic tensions go back many decades, but Western diplomats suspect that the Bulgarian authorities had grown freshly concerned that people of Turkish background were accounting for a fast-rising share, now 15 percent, of the total population of nine million.
Over the last five years, ethnic Turks have been assigned Slavic names, and refugees say they have been beaten, verbally abused and fined for speaking Turkish in public.
Turkish-language schools and newspapers were shut down, and Turkish names removed from tombstones. Mosques were closed except on religious holidays. Circumcision, required by Islamic law, was banned.
”We could not accept Bulgaria’s assimilation policies,” said Mustafa Omer Asi, who also came from Kircali. By May, Mr. Asi said, ”We were expecting a social explosion at any moment.”
In Sofia, officials have persistently denied that they persecute Turks because, they insist, there are no such people in Bulgaria, only Bulgarians who were once forced to convert to Islam under Ottoman rule. Emotional Boiling Point
Nevertheless, emotions reached a boiling point in May when protests erupted in Turkish areas in eastern Bulgaria, leading to clashes with Bulgarian security forces. As many as 50 people may have been killed, the Turks say, but the Bulgarian Government puts the death toll at 7. Either way, the demonstrations signaled the start of the exodus.
Beatings, jailings and other humiliations continue, say recent arrivals, who add that they are forced to wait for days at staging areas on the Bulgarian side of the border. Officials in Sofia have told Western reporters that they will not confiscate abandoned property, but many refugees fear that they have lost life savings left in Bulgarian banks.
In Ankara, several foreign diplomats argued that Bulgaria underestimated the intensity of ethnic identity among its Turkish minority, and therefore miscalculated how many were prepared to leave.
Typical of the strong feelings are the initials tattooed on the arms of some children. They stand for their Turkish names, their parents explain, and were put there as permanent reminders after they were forced to assume Slavic names.