Bulgaria: Social Impact report (Migration Impact Assessment to Enhance Integration and Local Development in European Rural and Mountain Regions)
Bulgaria's Centre for European Refugees, Migration and Ethnic Studies (CERMES) published a national report which aims to provide a social impact assessment of the arrival and settling-in of third country nationals (TCNs) in the Haskovo and Harmanli region, and of the transformations of local day-to-day life and social structure. Emphasis is placed upon social inclusion or polarisation, civic participation, and access to services. The report is based on extensive fieldwork, including a large number of interviews and focus groups.
The study paints a varied picture in terms of the significance of place for migrants – for some groups place does matter, while for others it does not. It is important to note that for amenity migration, the rural space is considered a primary destination. For asylum seekers, the opposite is the case – they are placed in the Registration and Reception Centre in Harmanli not through their own choice, but by the decision of the host country. For the third group of migrants place is of secondary importance, the issue of priority importance being that of starting a family.
There was found to be no competition between locals and migrants. The main reason for this is that there is no labour migration. The Haskovo region is one of the poorest regions in the poorest country in the EU, and is therefore not attractive for economic migration. Amenity migrants have a higher living standard than most locals, and very few refugee migrants reach the local labour market.
According to the report, the social impact of migration depends on its temporality and volume. The sudden, significant increase in the number of migrants after the opening of the refugee centre in Harmanli in 2016, for example, was experienced as a shock. The significant increase in migration flow following the establishment of the Registration and Reception Centre in this small town initially had a negative impact for several reasons. The first reason was the big change in the ratio of locals to refugees, when the number of refugees grew to several thousand in a town with a population of fewer than ten thousand. The second was the unpreparedness of public institutions to efficiently manage the so-called refugee crisis and the reception of a larger-than-normal number of new asylum-seekers. The third is the local population’s lack of intercultural experience in coexisting with large groups of migrants. The more gradual the arrival of a new group of both amenity and family migrants is, as well as the smaller their overall number, the more positive their reception by the local population is.
On the other hand, the establishment of the refugee centre has had a positive social and economic impact. It has become one of the biggest employers in Harmanli, providing a variety of high-skilled jobs. Whereas the radical increase in the number of refugees in the region initially had a negative impact, after the initial fear and apprehension among the local population died down the impact of these new arrivals began to be seen as positive because they boosted such local businesses as grocery shops, restaurants, banking services.
The migrants’ presence in Harmanli and the wider region can be characterised as coexistence, rather than as cohesion. Despite numerous practices aiming to bridge the gap between the two, migrants and locals live parallel lives. There is one positive exception to this: family migration.
Social inclusion follows different trajectories. It is lowest in the case of transitory migration – for the vast majority of refugees, the region is a short stop on their journey to Western Europe. The most comprehensive and multifaceted social inclusion is that of family migrants. Family migration is a stepping stone to labour migration as well as to inclusion in the family, neighbourhood, and local communities. In between the two poles – of non-inclusion because of transit migration and full inclusion because of family migration – are the amenity migrants, the largest proportion of whom are British. Noteworthy also are the success stories of integrated and empowered refugees – entrepreneurs, interpreters, cultural mediators.