Polish volunteers send tonnes of aid to Syrian refugees in Bulgaria

Posted at 01/16/2014 7:28 AM

WARSAW - Volunteers in Poland have collected 26 tonnes of aid including food and clothing for Syrian refugees in Bulgaria after the UN raised alarm over a "human emergency" on the EU's southern fringe.

"We used Facebook to spread word of the aid drive and the response just snowballed, it's been overwhelming -- we really didn't expect it," volunteer Michal Borkiewicz told AFP Thursday in Warsaw as a lorry loaded with supplies started the 1200 kilometre (750 mile) journey to the Harmanli refugee camp in south-eastern Bulgaria.

"We've collected 26 tonnes of clothes, food, bedding, toys, electric kettles and even three washing machines to install at the Harmanli camp," Borkiewicz said of the two-week long donation drive in the capital Warsaw and western city of Poznan that wound down on January 10.

Bulgaria, the European Union's poorest country has found itself completely unprepared to handle an influx of over 11,100 refugees -- many of them Syrians fleeing civil war at home -- crossing from Turkey last year.

Severe overcrowding, lack of sanitation and food shortages in the country's three refugee shelters together with administrative delays have prompted Bulgarian authorities to demand international help.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is distributing one hot meal per day in the Harmanli camp, the biggest and most crowded, where hundreds of Syrian and Afghan refugees are crammed in metal containers and tents for the winter.

Borkiewicz, who runs two of Warsaw's most popular clubs focused on independent arts and culture, said the aid drive in Poland was also aimed at raising "social awareness about the conditions refugees must endure in camps that are defacto inside the European Union."

"The conditions are brutal. It's not far away, it's happening on our doorstep and we can all do something to help," he told AFP.

"These people are victims of war and while fleeing for their lives they've become the victims of EU policy, which is pretending the Syrian refugee crisis doesn't exist," he added.

While raising the alarm about the "human emergency" at the camps last month, UNHCR representative Vincent Cochetel also criticised Bulgaria's plans to erect a 33-kilometre (21-mile) fence on the Turkish border aimed at stopping illegal migrants, many of whom are Syrian refugees.

"We are still calling on the authorities to manage their border in a way which lets people in need of international protection to access international protection," he urged.

The Polish volunteers will coordinate distribution of the aid at the Harmanli camp with Bulgaria's Friends of Refugees, a grassroots volunteer group, the UNHCR and the Polish embassy in Bulgaria.