Some 42,000 foreigners, or 0.6 percent of the total population, lived in Bulgaria in 2013, according to Eurostat. About 11,000 came from the EU, the rest are from all over the world. Many are well integrated in society. They have jobs, they do business, they teach or they study. A significant portion live here mainly during the tourist season. They have partaken of the recent property boom and have bought second homes for themselves and their families. Many foreigners are in Bulgaria for personal reasons. They have followed their husbands and wives to set up families in a foreign country.
During the past several years Bulgaria has also become an entry point for asylum-seekers. According to the State Agency for Refugees under the Council of Ministers, about 11,000 have requested asylum in Bulgaria, in 2014. More than half have been granted either refugee or humanitarian status. These are people who have left their homes, sometimes alone and sometimes with their families, and cannot return there because of political reasons or because of war.
The influx of asylum-seekers, coupled with the complicated economic and political situation Bulgaria is in at the moment, have boosted hate speech directed at anyone identified as "different" and "alien." Some foreigners have found themselves in the eye of the storm of populism, xenophobia and stereotypes. It is a storm blown out of proportion by extremist politicians and ostensibly pluralist media.
Some of the clichés date back to the times of Communism, but others are quite new – understandably, generated by the post-1989 opening up of Bulgaria and its uneasy transition from being one of the most isolated places even in former East bloc standards to being a full member of major international organisations such as the EU and NATO. The UnBulgarians project, conducted by the Free Speech International Foundation, in partnership with the Multi Kulti Collective and supported by the NGO Programme in Bulgaria under the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area 2009-2014, aims to address these issues through the images and life stories of ordinary non-Bulgarians who live here.
Who are the real people to whom clichés are so eagerly attached? How does an American entrepreneur or a Russian artist living in Sofia feel about their second home? Is a Muslim refugee from the Middle East secure enough in the Bulgarian streets? Is it easy to have your small business here if your face is a few shades lighter – or a few shades darker?
The UnBulgarians project identifies a wide range of people from New Zealand to Washington State and from Pakistan to the UK, people living in luxury gated communities on the outskirts of Sofia and in refugee camps, and asks questions about identity, both their identity at birth and their current identity as people living in Bulgaria. The answers they provide paint a multicoloured picture of what their lives, jobs, joys and woes in Bulgaria are.
But as it so often happens, the answers are also at times poignant questions. They inquire about the quality of democracy in Bulgaria as a modern, secular state in which by law and by tradition citizens are treated individually and without any reference to their race, religion or gender. Is it always living up to its legal commitments and its own customs? Is it really providing equal opportunities to everyone regardless of their ethnicity or faith?
Thesе questions also touch on the issue of the Bulgarians’ own identity. What does it mean to be Bulgarian? What does it take to become one if your mother and father were born elsewhere – and if the colour of your skin and the shape of your eyes are different? Are understanding and appreciation of Bulgarian music, art, mountains and the Black Sea coast enough to qualify? Is not the ability to speak Bulgarian with only a light accent a well-passed benchmark? What is the difference between a variegated headscarf and one that is just plain grey?
These are innocent yet surprisingly uneasy questions that we have attempted to address through images and words. They are at the basis of a debate about what this country is, or should be, in the 21st century. In contrast to the old democracies in Western Europe, where these topics have been on the agenda for many years, in Bulgaria they are relatively new. They are still news. The debate is yet to unfold.