Covered by forests, a river and mountains, it offers an alternative route and hopes for those who desperately seek to make their way into perceived better lives in the European Union. But most of them end up in the hands of traffickers and vigilantes. Locals on both sides of the border hope to bring more tourists to the region through joint initiatives. But they are also concerned over Turkish government’s plans to set up a seaport and a nuclear power plant in İğneada which may raise pollution levels and turn off tourists

İĞNEADA–The westernmost point of Turkey’s northern coast, where the border between Turkey and Bulgaria dissolves into the cool waters of the Black Sea, contrasts heavily with most of the border zones around the world.

Sislioba, a hamlet on the Turkish side of the border. Behind the hill in the background is Bulgaria
Sislioba, a hamlet on the Turkish side of the border. Behind the hill in the background is Bulgaria

Instead of barbed wires, there is a peaceful river separating the countries from each other.

Instead of soldiers standing alert at both sides of the boundary, the boundary itself is covered by a dense deep spot forest, home to rich flora and fauna.

On the Turkish side, a quiet sandy beach awaits its visitors. The inhabitants of the local village Beğendik, which forms a part of the town of İğneada, are proud of their well-maintained neighborhoods; “the state has invested a lot in our village,” they say, “so that we can impress the Bulgarians who are looking at us from their side of the border.”

A local entrepreneur rents binoculars, through which one can have a closer look at Rezovo, the similarly well-kept village on the Bulgarian side.

The tranquility of this border region has recently been strained due to two factors: influx of illegal immigrants and the lack of economic opportunities.

While the world has focused its attention on the refugees’ perilous efforts to cross the Aegean Sea to make their way from Turkey to Greece and beyond, the Turkish-Bulgarian border, which is covered by forests, a river and the Strandzha Mountains, offers an alternative route for those who desperately seek to make their way into perceived better lives in the European Union.

There is actually a 30-kilometer long barbed wire erected by Bulgarian authorities on the border, however, it falls short of spanning the total length of the border, which is 274 kilometers. A hand-made bridge thrown on a narrow part of the river or a night walk through the dense forest using the navigation capabilities of a mobile phone is usually sufficient to take illegal immigrants from Turkey into Bulgaria.

International human smuggling networks are making use of this route, however the numbers of refugees opting for this alternative seem to be on decline. One reason for this decline is improved coordination between law enforcement authorities.

A trilateral agreement signed in May last year by Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria opened the way for establishing a contact center for police and customs cooperation between the three countries and increasing capabilities for preventing irregular migration, human trafficking and organized crime at the common borders.

Representatives of the three countries have also met in İğneada to coordinate and enhance their regional border management policies.

While improved border control is one reason that keeps illegal immigrants away from the Turkish-Bulgarian border, another, and perhaps a more important reason is that the Bulgarian side is not really offering a hospitable environment for the incoming refugees.

There have been recently reports in international media about Bulgarian paramilitary groups using machetes and sometimes even military vehicles to hunt refugees who have illegally crossed the border, detaining them and forcing them to return to Turkey.  This picture certainly contrasts with the Greek islanders who make efforts to help the asylum seekers coming by boat.

While Bulgarian authorities are claiming to make efforts to clamp down the vigilantes, continued use of violence by such groups does not help to solve the problem, it only makes matters more complicated by spreading fear and terror among the asylum seekers and the local people.

The Bulgarian town seen from the beach on the Turkish side
The Bulgarian town seen from the beach on the Turkish side

The inflow of illegal immigrants is a problem that authorities from Turkey and Bulgaria are trying to deal with. However, if one asks the local villagers about the problems they are having, the answer would refer to the lack of economic opportunities.

Despite all the riches of nature, the forests, mountains and the sea, the border zone between Turkey and Bulgaria is relatively underdeveloped in economic sense. Agricultural lands scarcely exist in this region. So instead of farming and animal husbandry, locals need to resort to forestry to make a living, which, however, brings little income above subsistence.

In Sislioba, a hamlet on the Turkish side of the border with a mere hundred inhabitants, one does not see children playing in the square. “They leave as soon as they finish the primary school,” says a village elder, “they go to town to live with relatives. There is nothing much to do for them here.”

Tourism can be the next logical step. A joint initiative between organizations in Kırklareli and Burgas brings together twenty-one villages from both sides under the title “One Strandzha” to improve the tourism potential of this region.

If managed professionally, the shared natural wealth of this region can attract large numbers of tourists from Turkey and Bulgaria, as well as from other countries, helping to generate revenues to nurture the local economies. There are also projects under way to tap into the potential of health tourism between the two countries.

As observed on the Turkish side of the border, locals demand economic growth and better living standards. Tourism and related services can bring benefits for all, however beyond tourism, larger projects can come with attached costs.

İğneada is the designated site for a planned seaport, where the cement produced in a nearby plant will be loaded onto container ships destined to export markets.

If this project is realized, hundreds of cement trucks will shuttle between the plant and the port every day, which will create not only pollution but also a big turn-off for tourists as well.

To add to this, local NGOs are also reporting about the possible environmental impact of the project on marine life in the bay surrounding İğneada.

In the meantime, İğneada is also considered by the Turkish government as a possible site for the country’s third nuclear power plant.

Neither of these two projects have been finalized. Yet, there is a chance that they won’t take off at all. But one can easily see that the locals are concerned, and Bulgarians on the other side of the border are probably not very happy either.

The border region between Turkey and Bulgaria is a land of hope and dismay. Refugees trying to make their way from Turkey into the European Union come here with hopes; most of them ending up in the hands of traffickers and vigilantes.

Local people on both sides of the border have hopes for better economic opportunities, but they are also concerned about losing the natural wealth that they have.

Well formulated and implemented cooperation between Turkey and Bulgaria, at the level of both governments and civil society, can help to prevent illegal immigration and protect the lives of many. At the same time, it can also develop a joint economic base without sacrificing the natural assets of the region.

Dr. Altay Atlı is a lecturer at the Asian Studies graduate program of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, and a senior research associate at Turkey’s International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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