Bulgaria PM urges Eastern Europe to end resistance to migrant quotas

Sofia (AFP) –


Eastern European countries opposing new refugee quotas should show more solidarity, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said Thursday, assuring Sofia would accept its share of people fleeing war and persecution to Europe.

In an interview with AFP, the conservative Bulgarian premier said that poorer EU countries that depend on aid from Brussels should return the favour when it comes to helping relieve the migrant burden on their western European counterparts.

"When taxpayers (in richer European countries) give money for European solidarity, we are happy. When, however, they have a problem -- because the migrant flow is mainly headed there -- then, in my view, we also have to show solidarity and mutual aid," Borisov said.

The migrant crisis has sparked a rift between western European countries, who back an EU quota system to share asylum seekers among member states, and several central and eastern European countries like Hungary, Poland and Slovakia who reject the mechanism pushed through in late 2015.

Bulgaria stood apart from the group of ex-communist countries this week in confirming that it would accept its quota of 1,200 refugees -- provided that they accepted to move to the country.

"It does not matter if it is 1,200 or 2,000 people -- we have taken a commitment to accept them," Borisov told AFP on Thursday.

So far, only two Iraqi refugees have agreed to be relocated to Bulgaria from other EU countries, one of whom has already slipped out of the country.

"The migrants do not want to stay in Bulgaria. They want Sweden, Luxembourg, Switzerland. Do we need to build a prison to keep them here by force, or what?" Borisov asked rhetorically.

The prime minister, a former bodyguard, expressed scepticism about a proposed EU "solidarity contribution", or fine, of 250,000 euro ($290,000) per refugee that member states decline to take in.

Hungary on Wednesday accused the EU of "blackmail" while Poland likened the proposal to "an April Fool's Day" joke.

"It is high time that European Union members find mechanisms that work in practice instead of just condemning each other with statements along the lines of 'whoever does not accept relocation will be fined' or whatever," the sharp-tongued Borisov said.

- 'Too proud to plead' -

Bulgaria had been bracing for an influx of migrants across its borders with Greece and Turkey after the western Balkans route taken by most of the migrants on their odyssey to northern and western Europe was sealed off earlier this year.

But so far, Borisov said, there was no indication of increased pressure along the 259-kilometre border with Turkey or 493-kilometre frontier with Schengen member Greece.

"At present, Bulgaria is guarding the borders of the Schengen area very well," Borisov said.

Bulgaria and neighbouring Romania, who joined the EU in 2007, were refused entry into the passport-free Schengen zone following objections from a number of EU members led by the Netherlands.

"It was insulting," Borisov said Thursday of their exclusion, adding that he was "too proud to plead" for a re-think on the matter.

Taking aim at Greece, he said he took satisfaction in the fact that "Bulgaria is doing much better in safeguarding the Schengen area than the Schengen member states themselves."

"This is our moral reward," he said with a shrug.