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Video of Bulgarian Vigilantes Tying Up Migrants Highlights Political Xenophobia, Say Rights Groups

Bulgaria's prime minister and border police chief have previously publicly thanked vigilante groups who have been videoed detaining and tying up migrants, in breach of the country's laws.
Screen grab da un video postato su Facebook

The release of another amateur video showing a Bulgarian vigilante group aggressively detaining migrants has sparked outrage among human rights group who say the government is encouraging citizens to act outside the law and inciting violence against migrants.

Speaking in broken English one of the vigilantes can be heard yelling: "No Bulgaria. Go Turkey, immediately," in the video published on Facebook. The restrained men, who have their hands tied behind their backs, are shown lying face down on the floor and appear scared and confused.


None of the vigilantes behind the "citizen's arrest" — which is not permitted under Bulgarian law — show their faces in the clip but all are dressed in camouflage gear, and one man appears to have a machete strapped to him.

The video is not the first of its kind. Last year a man named Dinko Valev sprung to fame after a Bulgarian TV channel aired a show calling the automobile spare parts trader a "superhero" for "hunting" migrants attempting to cross the border on his quad bike.

In one video clip, shot on a mobile phone, Valev can be heard shouting insults at a group of migrants lying face down on the ground and commenting to his comrades that "they came from Syria to kill us like dogs."

Despite the questionable legality of the vigilantes' actions they have been widely praised by Bulgarian authorities in the past. The country's Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, a former bodyguard, personally thanked and praised the groups for their "help" in policing the border, it was reported on Sunday.

However, after criticism from human rights groups and local media, Borisov made a U-turn, writing on Facebook that "rights shouldn't be exceeded" and "any illegal or inhumane attitude will not only not be tolerated but will also be prosecuted under the law."

Later on Tuesday, police arrested a Bulgarian man accused of making the video and the prosecutor's office said it had opened an investigation into the incident.


Yet in another instance of official approval, last week members of an ultranationalist group called the Organization for Protection of Citizens were personally presented with an award by border police chief Antonio Angelov for detaining 23 migrants.

Related: Beaten, Robbed, Set Upon by Dogs: Welcome to Europe

"The authorities are effectively institutionalizing these groups, who are frankly bandits," said Margarita Ilieva, Legal Defense Program Director for the Helsinki Committee in Bulgaria. "The actions of these groups are in violation of national criminal law [in Bulgaria] and international human rights law… yet you have the director of the police awarding them for these crimes and the prime minister thanking them."

The Helsinki Committee has called for vigilantes such as Valev to be prosecuted for their actions and has also written open letters requesting the Attorney General investigate several senior officials, including the country's prime minister, for inciting racially motivated violence.

However a recent survey by Bulgarian National Television found widespread public support for the vigilantes, with 84 percent of respondents saying they thought the groups should be recognized and supported by the government.

While some officials, including the country's interior minister and now prime minister, have back-pedaled on their initial support for vigilante groups, rights groups says that the authorities are deliberately exploiting the migrant crisis to their political advantage.


"For the last at least three years government officials at the highest levels have been actively engaging in propaganda, instilling fear of refugees in the population. Their discourse has been based on threat and danger," said Ilieva. "As a matter of fact the number of migrants Bulgaria has had to deal with is low, but the politicians are making use of the situation to divert public attention away from critical consideration of the government into fear and hate of a common enemy."

Footage released by the Organization for Protection of Citizens group, which received an award last week from Bulgaria's border police chief.

An annual "Nations in Transit" report by Freedom House published on Tuesday noted that the mounting xenophobic and nationalist sentiment evident in the political rhetoric of central European countries, including Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland, "should serve as a stark warning" about the direction Europe is headed in.

While the number of migrants entering Bulgaria has more than doubled in the last fortnight, overall the number of people illegally entering the country remains low with just 314 new arrivals registered in the first week of April, up from 153 in the last week of March.

In a bid to halt further illegal entries into the country Bulgaria has erected a 15 foot tall 59 mile long razor wire fence along its border with Turkey, but more than 100 miles remain unsealed. Last week the government announced it would also deploy an additional 300 security personnel to protect the country's borders with Turkey and Serbia.


Meanwhile tensions are also up in neighboring Greece where more than 53,000 migrants are stranded after Macedonia closed its border in March, effectively sealing the so-called "Balkan Route" used by hundreds of thousands of migrants to reach western Europe last year.

Violence broke out near the Idomeni camp on the border with Macedonia on Sunday after hundreds of migrants attempted to breach a razor wire fence and leave Greece, prompting border police to fire tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowd which included children. More than 11,000 people are camped out the Greek side of the border.

Protests have also become a near daily occurrence in the detention centres on the Greek islands where migrants who arrived after a deal between the EU and Ankara came into effect earlier this month.

The agreement, which has been criticised by rights groups, will likely eventually see thousands of migrants deported back to Turkey but so far Greece has struggled to process asylum claims due to a lack of of appropriate personnel.

An Amnesty International report warned that conditions in the camps were "dire" and that migrants trying to claim asylum had virtually no access to legal aid or information about their current status.

Watch the VICE News documentary: Trapped in Bulgaria: Europe or Die:

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