A Scientific Initiative on/for Border Abolitionism

Node 13 - Caravan


February - March 2024

Turkey - Edirne

The land gateway to Europe: The border of Bulgaria and Turkey

This caravan extends digital ethnography on People on the Move entry into Europe, focusing on informal cooperative actions within the ‘migration industry from below,’ exploring concepts like ‘moral economy,’ ‘chav solidarity,’ and ‘interested solidarity’ guiding unauthorized movements.

For many Asian and, increasingly, African PoM, the principal routes to Europe by land and sea, commonly known as ‘the Game’, originate in Turkey. They head westward into Greece or Bulgaria before proceeding into the Western Balkans, primarily through Macedonia, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina (EPRS, 2022), although it should be noted that these trajectories are constantly changing. Therefore, it is essential to analyze and monitor these specific routes for two main reasons. First, for a large number of people, Turkey is the initial destination en route to entering the EU. Second, the Balkan region is a critical piece in the EU’s externalization strategies, with Europe expanding east-ward towards Turkey as the most long-standing Orientalized boundary. With half of all recorded entries to the EU being through the Mediterranean sea, the Western Balkan route remains the second most active route for PoM who are trying to reach the EU (Klikaktiv, 2023).

The need to delve into the Bulgarian case stems from the increase in transits witnessed in 2022, confirmed by data from the Ministry of Interior, according to which 168,378 third-country nationals attempted to cross the national borders in 2022, a number 3.1 times higher than in 2021 (55,012 persons). According to statistics published by the General Directorate of Border Police, the number of prevented illegal attempts to cross the Turkish-Bulgarian border in June and July of 2023 increased by 73% compared to the same months in 2022, from 27,083 in 2022 to 46,940 in 2023. From January 1st to August 7th, 2023, the border police prevented 108,954 illegal crossing attempts, compared to 67,846 in the same period of 2022 (Source: Collettivo Rotte Balcaniche Alto Vicentino, 2023). The Bulgarian-Turkish border thus has high priority for the European Commission, as in an official letter on March 20, Von der Leyen stated that most of the 600 million Euro available for 2023 through the Frontex agency will be spent to support member countries in border control and the purchase of technological devices (Source: StateWatch, 2023). Article 13 of EU Regulation No. 604/2013 (Dublin III) states that the Member State of first entry is responsible for examining asylum applications. However, Bulgaria is primarily a transit country, situated at the heart of the land routes leading from the Middle East and Africa to other European countries such as Germany, France, and Italy. The transit dimension is supported by data on the abandonment of asylum procedures, indicating that many individuals leave the country before the outcome of their application is determined. In addition, the rejections at the border between Bulgaria and Turkey are accompanied by the systematic use of violence.

Factors contributing to the high flow of people through Bulgaria include the further ‘fortification’ of the land border between Greece and Turkey, which has become increasingly difficult to cross in recent years. On the other hand, the earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria in February 2023 has exacerbated an already tragic situation; the economic crisis both in the Anatolian country and in North Africa shows no signs of ending; the policy of mass deportations implemented by Erdoğan and resumed in the post-election period puts the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in the country on the flight line. It is necessary not to forget the constant exodus of the Afghan population, which is also exposed to the violent institutional racism of the Turkish state and to the constant risk of being repatriated. In fact, the main countries of origin of people seeking protection in Bulgaria are Afghanistan and Syria, followed by Morocco and Iraq (Source: UNHRC, 2023). In this respect, this caravan is in consistent continuity with the work of my colleague Lulufer Korukmez in Turkey and my own preliminary mission in Izmir in December 2023.


Research plan

Through the collection of life narratives, interviews with other associations on the field and ethnographic work within NNK movement, in this first caravan I aim to explore the construction and functioning of solidarity networks and practices from below among PoM entering the Western Balkan Route and the involvement of multiple characters such as facilitators and smugglers.

More specifically, I will try to understand the formal and informal networks that guide the trajectories of PoMs entering the Western Balkans route and the multiple nuances that the concept of solidarity assumes in their journey and stay. Solidarity is conceptualized here as an intricate realm of interactions that reveal and produce porosities and shifts in hierarchies and boundaries (Barth, 1998) both between and within different social groups in the transitional space. A diverse and complex array of practices and collaborations take place in multiple contexts, involving different actors and driven by either humanitarian, political, religious, ethical, or economic motivations (Amigoni & Queirolo Palmas, 2023).

The research intends to problematize some perspectives that have long informed contemporary migration studies such as the figure of the smuggler, the traditional push/pull factors paradigm as well as the forced/voluntary migration divide. More specifically, the analysis seeks to move away from the dominant lens used in the analysis of people smuggling, which has almost solely examined it as a form of transnational organized crime and/or as an element of externalized border governance (Augustova & Suber, 2023). Often depicted as pure victims deprived of their agency, PoM illegally moving never cease to have aspirations and remain subjects who make more or less calculated tactical choices about how to reconfigure their lives and advance their projects (De Genova, 2020). I rely on an increasing body of literature that contends that smuggling networks are building (intentionally or not) as an alternative mobility regime directly influenced by the border regulation, and that mobile technology is augmenting the network capital required to build this regime. It adapts Urry’s framework for network capital to irregular movement, and uses this framework to analyze the demand, supply, and organizational aspects of smuggling networks (Nimkar, Savage, & Mohammadi, 2019).

Since in both Harmanli and Svilengrad NNK works mainly with PoM detained in transit and registration and reception centers, my research will also focus on solidarity practices implemented in these specific (non)spaces. Moreover, given the predominance of Syrians and Moroccans, I will compare their use of digital infrastructures and mobility networks with those of Iranians and Afghans, whom I have been analyzing since the beginning of the project.


Generative Narrative Workshops

In the field I will be accompanied by Emanuela Zampa, a professional photographer with years of experience in border and PoM work. The initial planning that we have prepared revolves around food and cooking, using it as a gatekeeping strategy to collect stories about the crossing of the border. The change in the field in Bulgaria forced us to suspend this plan for the time being, waiting to review the concrete situation on the ground. In the meantime, we are discussing another project focusing on the use of digital infrastructures, to be organized through a short series of virtual meetings. The cooperation of the other associations in the field will be actively sought and will be a source of inspiration.


Ethical notes and dilemmas

The main ethical issues in this research project concern the safety and privacy of the PoM I will be in contact with in the field and whose stories I will be collecting. Since many of them are likely to be held in detention centers run by the local authorities, my first concern will be not to raise any doubts about their cooperation with us as activists and researchers. It will be my priority to constantly check with my research group and the SCERE on ways to minimize the negative impacts of my activity on the research subjects and how to imagine alternative, innovative forms of restitution. Moreover, all the SOLROUTES protocols about research and ethics will be taken into consideration and accomplished.


Ethnographic Caravan Report: The externalization of borders, solidarity and smuggling between Bulgaria and Türkiye


R. Ghaffari, E. Zampa (photographer)
Download Report