The Focus Group was organized with the aim of identifying problematic areas and lines of action to be included in the toolkit for professionals in the sector which is the major outcome of the project PEARL. The online meeting was facilitated by Monika Pisankaneva from WCIF who welcomed the participants and gave a brief introduction to the Pearl project, she outlined the objectives of the focus group and the ground rules to be followed by the participants such as active participation, respect for other opinions, etc. The participants in the focus group were social workers and volunteers working with migrants and refugees in the refugee camp in the town of Harmanly near the Bulgarian – Turkish border. Most of them were young people in their 20 – 30ies, some of them also with migrant experience being non-Bulgarian citizens. There was a significant variety in the group regarding gender, age, background, and nationality – 3 of the participants were Bulgarian, two Syrian, and one Ukrainian.
All participants agreed that covering the basic and essential needs like food, safety, consultations /legal, medical, etc./ and providing information to migrants are most important in overcoming the barriers and satisfying their needs. One of the participants, Igor, emphasized that Ukrainian refugees need financial support and job opportunities which is also related to juridical and psychological consultations and specific support for migrant mothers. A serious barrier to integration and participation that was mentioned during the focus group discussions was the lack of language courses to be offered to migrants and refugees. At the same time there is little interest in Bulgarian language courses as most of the refugees hope that sooner or later, they would leave Bulgaria and settle in some Western EU democracy. Another obstacle to the integration of migrants that was mentioned is the lack of information and the burdensome administration issues that keep migrants away from civic let alone political participation. Another obstacle mentioned was the lack of adequate adaptation services during the time when refugees are waiting to get their status. This period is between 3 and 9 months for Bulgarian authorities to decide the status of a given refugee.
All participants in the focus group agreed that a key priority for all migrants is to relieve them from the burdens they carry from the countries they have fled. Part of this process includes restoring the rights they have been deprived of or violated in their countries of origin. A major priority is of course providing migrants with housing, medical and social services, thus taking care of their basic physiological and psychological needs. Presently psychological needs are not addressed. An NGO attempted to provide psychological counseling to refugees at the Harmanly camp, but there was no interest in the service, and it dropped down. Another important priority is to include migrants in activities that would allow them to express their opinions on matters that are important to them including civic and political participation. An utmost priority for almost all young migrants and refugees is their smooth adaptation to the host country’s culture, traditions, and interpersonal relations which includes finding friends and mentors among the local citizens.
The channels usually used to assist migrant youth to engage in public affairs, take part in decision-making processes, and increase their participation are on the first hand the online channels like the social media networks: Viber, FB, Telegram, What’s up, etc. The problem with that kind of participation tool is that it is difficult to keep the attention of migrant youth over a long period of time and mobilize them for taking some real-time/non-virtual/ action. Participants shared the opinion that it is much better to work with tools that engage migrants not virtually but, like Various workshops – the participants from Mission Wings mentioned that they have a positive experience in organizing workshops for women migrants from the Arabic states where the participants share experiences and support each other. Such forms of collective participation could be used to attract the interest of migrant women in civic and political participation as their interest in these spheres of activity is traditionally very low.
The focus group organized under the PEARL project was a great opportunity for professionals to discuss and identify problems for migrants’ lack of representation and participation in public and political life in Bulgaria. The greatest problem that stuck out of the discussion is that Bulgaria is not an attractive country of residence for those people, they view it as only a transit place from where they can get to a better life in some of the genuine Western democracies.