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Migrants Set On Getting To Europe Try Crossing Between Turkey And Bulgaria


We have a glimpse, next, of the border between two worlds. On one side is the Middle East - much instability and danger.


On the other side is the European Union and the prospect, for many, of safety. And that prospect is drawing many desperate migrants. A U.N. report is expected to confirm this week what many have suspected. Europe is undergoing its worst refugee crisis since World War II.

INSKEEP: People are entering Europe across the Mediterranean Sea, as we've heard a lot in recent months. They are also coming by land, crossing the border from Turkey into Bulgaria. NPR's Ari Shapiro visited Bulgaria, and we reached him near the border with Turkey.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: We went up to the top of this hill, actually overlooking the Bulgarian-Turkish border. On one side, there was a huge Turkish flag flying in the wind. On the other side, an enormous Bulgarian flag, but even more importantly, next to it, an EU flag - a flag of the European Union because this is the easternmost border of the European Union. And if you are escaping a Middle Eastern war on foot and you want to enter Europe by land, this is where you're going to do it.

INSKEEP: And are people crossing legally and appealing for asylum, or are they crossing illegally, doing both? What's happening?

SHAPIRO: Frankly, both. We met with the head of the intelligence services for the border guard. He said last weekend alone, 650 people were intercepted trying to cross the border illegally. Almost all of them were turned back. Some were let in. And, he said, if you're a smuggler, in two hours bringing a family across the border, you can make as much as a border guard makes in three months. And so there's huge incentive for people to help folks across the border. And, you know, smuggling is something that people on the border of Eastern Europe and Bulgaria have dealt with for a long time. But now, instead of looking at people smuggling drugs or cigarettes, they're smuggling refugees, families, children, folks who are escaping war.

INSKEEP: So what are Bulgarian officials trying to do about this?

SHAPIRO: Well, at the border, there are surveillance cameras. There are teams of people. There is a 3 meter high fence. On the broader picture, this is a problem that no amount of cameras seems capable of solving. I spoke with Elena Poptodorova, who is the Bulgarian ambassador to the United States. She told me they have beds for 1,000 people. So far this year, they have had 7,000 people.

ELENA POPTODOROVA: Until a year and a half ago, that seemed to, more or less, take care of the numbers. Now it's literally impossible. There are no physical conditions to accommodate these people. And so it is quietly moving into a tragic situation.

SHAPIRO: And, Steve, she says quietly moving, but these numbers are growing so quickly, so dramatically. Everyone in Bulgaria is intensely focused on this, as are people in the rest of Europe because many of the people entering Bulgaria then go on west to other European countries.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm trying to keep the map in my head here, Ari Shapiro. Where are people starting from, and where are they trying to get to as they arrive at that border between Turkey and Bulgaria?

SHAPIRO: The vast majority of people entering Bulgaria these days are coming from Syria or Iraq, although there are other countries as well. And they are just trying to get inside the European Union because once you're here and you are recognized as a refugee, then you're allowed to stay in the European Union, which can give you all kinds of opportunities for work and life and a future that you're not going to have in a war-torn country like Syria.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing when you talk with refugees, as well as ordinary Bulgarians, in the middle of this flow?

SHAPIRO: As a matter of fact, you've reached me at a lunch table where I'm speaking with some refugees from Syria. And they've found jobs at this little fast food restaurant owned by Bulgarians. They've employed Syrians. They're serving Syrian food. And so people are trying to get by. Obviously, there are some clashes and some tensions. But on the whole, people I talk with who have come across the border say they're happy and relieved to be here. And Bulgarians say they're trying to figure out how to cope with this new reality.

INSKEEP: Well, Ari, I hope you get a good lunch.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Thanks very much.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro, speaking with us from near Bulgaria's border with Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.