Finding and helping Bulgaria’s refugee children

Published 12th April 2017

By Shyamantha Asokan

“As soon as they saw me, they knew it was an emergency,” says Ibtisam*, a 17-year-old Somalian refugee.

When Doctors of the World found Ibtisam in her bedroom in a Bulgarian refugee camp, we rushed her to hospital immediately. She had frostbite and gangrenous spots on her feet that could have led to amputations if left untreated.

In order to reach safety in Europe, Ibtisam had walked for several days with a group of strangers over the mountains along Bulgaria’s border with Turkey. It was January and temperatures were regularly below -10 degrees celsius.

There are hundreds of unaccompanied refugee children in Bulgaria, one of the EU’s easternmost countries and an entry point into the bloc. One in every 13 people who claimed asylum in Europe in 2015 was an unaccompanied child, and preliminary 2016 figures show a similar trend.

That’s why we started a special support project for Bulgaria’s unaccompanied minors in January. Our teams work in four refugee camps to find unaccompanied minors, give them winter clothes and hygiene kits (pictured below), assess their health needs, and help them compile the documents they need to join any relatives they have in Europe.

We worked with over 500 minors between mid-January and mid-March alone. We aim to check in with these minors once a week while they live in the camps.

“Everyone I see is different – some need a psychologist, some need to be reunited with their families, some just need a blanket,” says Ali Zalzar, one of our social workers. “The more you observe them, the more you see what they need.”

When our team took Ibtisam to hospital, she was terrified about what would happen next – she said very little and kept hugging herself. We translated for her and advocated for her to stay there overnight and get all the help she needed, even though the local doctors were reluctant to keep her on. She stayed for three days and was successfully treated.

We will stay in close contact with Ibtisam for as long as she needs us. Her father sent her alone out of Somalia, which has been wracked by civil war and Islamist groups for over 25 years, as he could only afford one plane ticket.

Yet life in Bulgaria also carries many risks. Bulgaria’s authorities have been keeping some unaccompanied minors in detention centres and deporting them, the Times has reported. The camps where we work have problems ranging from power cuts to broken toilets, and there are relatively few unaccompanied girls.

Around 10,000 unaccompanied migrant children have gone missing in Europe since 2014, according to the EU’s police intelligence unit.

Abdul*, another of the unaccompanied children we’re helping, is 15-years-old and desperate to make something of his life. He fled Iran after he was discriminated against for having Afghan parents and refused a place at high school.

We’ve helped Abdul to compile the documents he needs to apply to join his sister in western Europe. He’s living in a camp in Bulgaria while waiting for the response to his application.

Abdul’s ambition is to be a mechanical engineer. When he talks about car engines, he suddenly breaks into a boyish smile. His hopes for the future are simple: “To study, to have a job, to have a normal life.”

*Names have been changed


We’re hugely grateful to the Start Network and UK aid for funding our two-month emergency projects in Bulgaria. The Start Network runs an emergency migration response fund, financed by UK aid, that can release money in less than 72 hours. 

We’ve decided to keep working in Bulgaria’s camps beyond this emergency phase, which ended in late March. Please donate to help us continue our work with refugees in Bulgaria around the world.


With your support, Doctors of the World will make sure nobody suffers or dies due to lack of access to healthcare.