Anti-migrant violence and scapegoating in Bulgarian media 

By Alexandra Alexandrova, writer, communication specialist and activist. 

“[In Bulgaria] no institutional or practical arrangements or measures exist to ensure a differentiated approach to border control that gives access to the territory and protection for those who flee from war or persecution,”- AIDA (Asylum Information Database) report. 

The Balkan country of Bulgaria is a so-called “first contact” country in the European Union for many asylum seekers, as it borders Turkey to the north, making it a crucial land-based gateway to the EU. As people flee from war, poverty or persecution, they end up being caught between dangerous migrant smuggling schemes, violent pushbacks at the Bulgarian-Turkish border, extreme conditions at asylum centers, and dehumanising media coverage in the Bulgarian media.  

It is important to understand how Middle Eastern and North African migrants have been scapegoated in the media in efforts to score political points. A prominent example is Bulgaria’s attempt to enter the Schengen zone, the borderless union shared between European countries. As many migrants experienced severe levels of violence at the hands of police and institutions, populist political discourse in mainstream media blamed “illegal migrants” for failing to enter the Schengen zone in 2023. Bulgarian mainstream media is largely owned by a handful of people and censored on all sides of the (political) spectrum with the only exception being self-funding platforms.  

“When the police found me and arrested me, they immediately started beating me. They kneed me in my crotch very hard. Three police beat me,” a 21-year-old Afghan man, said about his experience crossing the Turkish-Bulgarian border.  

Since 2016, Bulgaria has seen several cases of so-called “migrant hunters” – self-organised civilians who patrol the Bulgarian-Turkish border “hunting” asylum seekers to be later detained by police; an act that was even initially awarded by the border patrol. Such stories showcase the country’s inability and unwillingness to ensure a fair migration process. 

Sensationalising migration in Bulgarian media 

The sensationalisation and biased reporting on asylum seekers and refugees, especially from Middle Eastern and North African countries, has been key to the shaping of racist and xenophobic prejudice within Bulgarian society. In 2013-2014 Bulgaria saw a sharp increase in people seeking refuge within its borders, as the deadly war in Syria was transpiring. Bulgaria failed to meet minimal international standards for the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, as thousands of migrants were experiencing violence and bureaucratic inadequacies.  

A 2015 report by the Ethical Journalism Network talks about the severe dangers populist political discourse caused to the lives of migrating individuals. In 2014, Bulgarian media amplified plenty of misinformation, such as the interior minister’s statement that refugees were receiving 1100 leva (560€) in allowance, which is about the average salary of Bulgarian citizens. This misinformation was disproved only by one outlet reflecting the reality that they only received a supplement of 65 leva (33€). The further demonisation of refugees even resulted in a Syrian family being kicked out of their home in Rozovo, Bulgaria.  

When the Russian war on Ukraine started in 2022, the Bulgarian prime minister made the following statement on Ukrainian asylum seekers: “These people are European, they are intelligent and educated. (…) This is not the usual refugee wave of people of uncertain backgrounds. No European country is afraid of them.” A statement reflecting xenophobic sentiments, though later also spiraling into another xenophobic narrative framing Ukrainians as public enemies. 

Bulgarian media furthermore emphasises the main problem with migration is when it is done “illegally”. However, Abdulrhman Al-Khalidi’s story, a Saudi Arabian political dissident, tells the horrors people go through, even when attempting to enter “legally”. He has been in the Busmantsi Detention Centre in Bulgaria since 2021. He was given no information about how long he would be detained for or what he can expect. “They use a prison mentality here, without any charge against us. Criminals have a better situation than us, they know how long they will be detained for. This is part of a torture mentality.” 

While the court signed his release on the 18th of January, the detention centre refused it, pushing for Al-Khalidi’s deportation to Saudi Arabia. This would put his life in immediate danger upon arrival in his home country. Human rights organisations have spoken out on this issue, calling for his immediate release, as his detention became illegal.  

Meanwhile, on the 31st of March he was allegedly severely beaten by the police at Busmantsi and denied medical care, just as he had been denied his prescribed PTSD and ADHD medication, leaving him without proof of the violence. He tells us that the police even threatened to murder him and frame it as suicide.  

“I wanted to give food to a fasting family on another floor, which is completely legal, and I used to do this every day. A policeman tried to prevent me and refused the order, so I got into an argument with him. He started beating me for a full hour. One policeman told me before: we can put two bullets in your head and a pistol and a kilo of coke in your hands. They said they would fake my suicide and paint me as a criminal.” 

Anti-refugee protests 

In March of 2024, a new wave of xenophobic actions took place in the capital of Sofia. Pakistani students were beaten for their presumed residency status. An Afghan man was attacked while leaving his home, as his attackers wanted him to go back to his home country. Meanwhile, in Sofia several “anti-migrant” protests took place, following Bulgaria’s 2024 partial ascension into the Schengen zone. In this regard, political parties were accused of “inciting hatred and insecurity by spreading false information”.  

As anti-migrant sentiments are on the rise, putting an end to the xenophobic campaign, perpetuated largely by the media, that has plagued the country continues to be of vital essence. Above all, media outlets have a responsibility to report vulnerable human stories in a dignifying way, debunking dehumanising narratives.  

Picture: Shutterstock

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Media Diversity Institute. Any question or comment should be addressed to