SOFIA — For most of her adult life, Svitlana Denichenko has worked as a nurse in an anesthesiology department. Every day, she would prepare the anesthetic and then monitor the patients during operations and procedures. She also saved lives, sometimes having to resuscitate patients or administer intensive care.
When she arrived in Bulgaria, fleeing the Russian invasion of the Ukraine in February, she soon had the impression that her nursing skills were unwanted. So instead of continuing with the profession she chose, she accepted the only job offers she could get: as a maid, cleaner, and kitchen helper.
“I applied for a job in all the hospitals in Varna, but they never called me back”, Denichenko told the Bulgarian Service of RFE/RLreferring to the resort town on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast where he now lives.
Denichenko’s case is no exception in Bulgaria, a country of 6.5 million inhabitants and the poorest in the European Union. Volunteers and experts working with Ukrainians in Bulgaria have told RFE/RL that many refugees with relevant experience cannot find work in the health sector, despite a shortage of doctors and nurses.
Instead of jobs, the political debate in Bulgaria has focused on sheltering refugees. A national refugee accommodation program in tourist hotels has often been threatened with closure, with local authorities telling refugees to pay up or go home.
On October 31, the Minister of the Interior, Ivan Demerdzhiev, announced that the State stop paying for hotels which housed Ukrainian refugees. Under his proposed plan, refugees unable to pay their own expenses would be moved into state housing.
Despite Demerdzhiev’s announcement, the Bulgarian Council of Ministers, the government’s main decision-making body, in November extended the hotel accommodation program until February 24, 2023, the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. . As a member state of the European Union, Bulgaria must comply with the Temporary Protection Directive, which means that refugees have the right to work, housing, education, financial support and access to healthcare for three years.
However, EU rights do not always translate into successful results on the ground. And the problem in Bulgaria is much bigger than accommodation.
Not filling a need
More than nine months after the invasion, critics say Bulgaria has no strategy for integrating refugees into society, with successive governments making hasty and chaotic decisions. According to the World Health Organization, more than 500,000 Ukrainian refugees have crossed the border with Bulgaria since the war began, although according to UNHCR and UNICEF figures for July, only 87,000 refugees remained.
Denichenko is from Chernihiv, a city an hour’s drive north of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, which has suffered for weeks under a Russian siege. He came to Varna in May, as he has an acquaintance in the city who offered him a place to stay.
“I have a 26-year-old son who is participating in the war as a volunteer,” Denichenko said. “He made me leave to be in a safe place.” She has been living in Bulgaria for six months, she says, and she has nothing to complain about. The only problem with her is that she can’t practice her profession.
“I’ve been in the operating room all my life,” Denichenko said. “But I wasn’t specifically looking to work as a nurse anesthetist [here]I was just looking for a job as a nurse or any medical worker.”
After working several menial jobs, Denichenko again tried to find permanent employment as a nurse, but once again failed. When she was offered a job as a stockist in a pharmaceutical company at the end of October, she immediately accepted.
There is no shortage of jobs in the healthcare sector in Bulgaria. Many doctors and nurses, especially those in the early stages of their careers, prefer to work abroad in search of better pay, a higher standard of living, and more career development opportunities.
According to the Bulgarian National Statistical Institute, there were 1,730 fewer nurses in 2021 compared to 2019, a 6 percent drop. In June, Radio Bulgaria reported that there was a serious shortage of doctors across the country. According to a report by the Open Society Institute, only 5 percent of Bulgarian doctors were under the age of 30 and up to a third were of retirement age.
Those inherent problems have not been alleviated by the country’s ongoing political turbulence, which critics say has prevented political leaders from setting out a coherent strategy on Ukrainian refugees.
Since 2020, Bulgaria has been in a political stalemate, with protests sparked by public anger over state corruption. Bulgaria’s conservative Citizens for European Development (GERB) party and its leader, Boyko Borisov, who served as prime minister for much of the 2010s, have been the target of public ire.
However, on October 2, Bulgarians went to the polls for the fourth national election in 18 months, giving the GERB a plurality of around 25 percent. With the previous ruling party unable to form a government, and with early elections again a possibility, the country is now run by an interim government.
Some politicians have spoken out against the government’s treatment of Ukrainian refugees. Speaking to the RFE/RL Bulgarian Service, Kremena Kuneva, a parliamentary deputy for Bulgaria’s pro-European Union anti-corruption alliance, said that 1,500 Ukrainian refugees working in the health sector had been in Bulgaria. By her own numbers, only 150 of them stayed. “Our country did absolutely nothing to hold these people,” Kuneva said.
Kuneva says she sent questions to interim Prime Minister Galab Donev and to the health, labor and social policy ministers at the end of October. One of the questions she asked was whether the government had any plans for the integration of Ukrainian refugees.
According to Kuneva, one of the main obstacles in Bulgaria is the recognition of foreign diplomas in the health and education sectors. Contrary to the recommendations of the European Commission, Bulgaria has never adopted simplified procedures for accepting foreign titles from people fleeing the war in Ukraine.
While the current interior minister has launched a new National Migration Council, there is still a general lack of strategy, says Kuneva. “The main problem is that eight months later, there is no integration plan. All Bulgaria is doing is paying for hotels and state housing expenses,” she said.
‘Must do better’
Iliana Savova, director of the Program for the Legal Protection of Refugees and Migrants at the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, agrees that politicians have taken an ineffective approach.
According to Savova, in the case of the Ukrainian refugees in Bulgaria, the authorities decided that the problem would be temporary, so their accommodation had to be taken care of but little else. “The point here is to give these people the opportunity to support themselves and lead a normal life … including the right to work,” she said.
“We are hungry for people who have education and careers. It will be a great advantage for Bulgaria if we manage to integrate these people…so they can practice their professions,” Savova said. “So we’re not in a situation where a qualified doctor or engineer is working as a waiter.”
For this to happen, Savova said, more targeted and structured measures are needed, such as profiling refugees and assessing their vulnerabilities and needs.
Bulgaria is not the only EU country where Ukrainian refugees have had trouble finding work. With women and children making up about 90 percent of the refugees, women often bear the burden of caring for children, their partners, and the support networks still in Ukraine. A survey cited by Deutsche Welle in June found that only 50 percent of Ukrainian refugees in Germany had found work. Newcomers sometimes do better in countries like Poland or the Czech Republic, which already have established Ukrainian communities and a less intimidating language barrier.
The previous government took some measures, introducing incentives for employers who hire Ukrainian refugees, but these measures, according to Savova, have been “sporadic”, poorly publicized and not well known, even among Ukrainians.
“They are a legacy of the previous government. The current interim government does not coordinate anything and does nothing. They follow events, they don’t direct them,” Savova added. “This interim government is only responding to public pressure, as in the current case with housing.”
While the interim government may not be expelling Ukrainian refugees from the country, he says, they certainly aren’t doing much to support them.