Bulgaria to send refugees to closed camps over riot

Police use water cannon and rubber bullets to quell the violence, in which the interior ministry claims 24 officers and three of the refugees were hurt

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Bulgaria will move hundreds of people who clashed with police at a refugee camp to closed camps and hopes to start extraditing some to their native Afghanistan next month, Prime Minister Boiko Borisov has said.

More than 400 asylum seekers, angered at being confined at the camp in the southern town of Harmanli near the border with Turkey over a health scare, were arrested after clashes with riot police late on Thursday.

Police used water cannon and rubber bullets to quell the riot, in which the interior ministry said 24 officers were hurt. Three migrants sought medical help after the riot, it added.

Prosecutors said they had charged 18 refugees and migrants over the riot and launched an investigation against unidentified police officers for injuring two refugees during the clashes.

On Friday, the refugee camp, Bulgaria’s largest and home to about 3,000 asylum seekers, had broken windows, overturned trash containers and other debris strewn around.

It was heavily guarded by about 250 riot police and the defence ministry said it was sending about 60 soldiers to support them in preventing any further escalation of violence.

“I am very worried,” said Mr Borisov, who cancelled a visit to Hungary because of the riot. “You see there is no window left unbroken. The people who committed these acts of vandalism will be brought to justice.”

“Based on an agreement between the European Union and Afghanistan we have asked for a plane to start extraditing people there in early December. As for the rest, all who have acted brutally and violated public order, will be moved to closed camps,” Mr Borisov said.

More than a million migrants and refugees have entered the European Union over the past 15 months, many fleeing conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. Some have entered Bulgaria, an EU member, from Turkey hoping to carry on to wealthier western Europe where most want to settle and build a new life.

Mr Borisov urged residents of Harmanli to stay calm and to avoid provoking the asylum seekers. A small group of local people waving national flags demanded the camp’s closure.

“This camp should be closed. You should see what it's like here at weekends. They go around in big groups and take fruit and vegetables at the market without paying,” said one resident, Rusi Stoev.

Last week some local people, led by nationalist parties, staged protests against the camp following media reports that migrants were suffering from contagious skin diseases.

The tensions caused the temporary closure of the camp to allow health officials to investigate. They said the reports had been exaggerated and that there was no public health risk.

Bulgaria has built a fence along its border with Turkey and has beefed up border controls to deter the migrants. Some 17,000 people were detained in the first 10 months of the year, down by more than a third from the same period in 2015.

Despite the decreasing numbers, Bulgarian nationalists have staged protests in recent months calling for the immediate closure of all refugee centres and for migrants to be returned to Turkey or to their country of origin.

Many of the refugees and migrants at the Harmanli camp have asked for free passage to Serbia – on the route from Bulgaria to western Europe – but the interior minister said such a move would be politically impossible and has deployed more police officers to Harmanli.