In the Threshold of the Semi-actual: The Economic Migrant and the Special Homes for Accommodation

by Raia Apostolova

Some time ago two researchers, Julia Serdarov and Veit Schwab, who are also actively involved in several international movements on migration issues, visited Sofia with the aim of documenting refugee stories from Bulgaria. They named the project ‘(Re-)Positions’ with the idea that the political narrative of those seeking asylum needs to leave its narrow geographical limits, and instead forcefully enter the public sphere.

The following story will also deal with spatial repositioning. It follows from the ideology that classifies migrants crossing the European borders into belonging either to the political or the economic sphere.

This essay will be centred around the Special Home for Temporary Accommodation of Foreigners (SHTAF) in the city of Lyubimets, which I will examine as a space maintaining the fantasy of the already-mentioned division, but also one where a struggle against that same division unfolds. Lyubimets is a space of potentiality, this means that conflicts unfold in the movement in-between and along the axes of potentiality and actuality – between being a ‘genuine refugee’ and an ‘economic migrant’. At the same time, the conflict involves many different social actors. According to the official narrative of the state, the premises functions in order to accommodate illegal immigrants: those foreigners who are potentially dangerous to the national security and those who have been served deportation orders as they have turned out to be economic migrants, and not genuine refugees. In practice, as it will be shown, SHTAFs detain potential economic migrants. At the same time, according to the non-governmental sector Lyubimets (together with Busmantsi) is actually detaining potential refugees and therefore breaches international laws and regulations for the protection of asylum seekers.* According to this position those who cross our borders in search for asylum must instead be accommodated in the registration centres of the State Agency for Refugees (SAR*). However, Lyubimets is also a space of potential for capital. A space where the movement between potentiality and actuality as well as the struggle inherent to this movement bear possibilities for accumulation.

Being an external border of the EU, Bulgaria has been very committed to its role as a guard. Fences, people-hunters, border arrests – all resources to protect the Union and the motherland have been employed to capture the false, the economic (i.e., the economic migrant) and to separate it from the genuine, the political (i.e., the war-fleeing migrant). The refugee system of the external borders is subjected exactly to this logic. Catch the tricksters. This мошенолов [moshenolóv]* grants meaning to a whole array of technicians (translators, interviewers, smugglers, human rights activists, psychologists), infrastructural improvements (the so-called ‘smart borders’, accommodation centres, school classes particularly for refugees), a legislative and an executive system. In addition, this moshenolov has its own course: crossing the border, pushbacks or detention, interrogation, court, prison, registration centre, and finally a rejection or granting of a refugee status. In this temporality of becoming a refugee, it’s as if one of the most important tasks for both migrants and technicians, is to adjust their knowledge to this movement from potentiality to actuality. This task is also spatially incorporated in Lyubimets. In other words, an answer is sought to the questions ‘How to convince them that I am a genuine refugee?’ and ‘How can we be sure, that the person is not a genuine refugee?’. We could imagine the progression of the moshenolov as a string of knots of temporal spaces, where the movement potentiality-actuality is constantly renegotiated. Let us examine Lyubimets as one such knot.

In order to see Lyubimets as a space of potentiality, we need to focus first on the conflict that follows from the repositioning from the Home to the registration centres in Pastrogor, Sofia and Banya. This social repositioning and the literal physical transfer from one premise to another give those who have crossed the border the possibility to convince the technicians and the state that their flight is worthy of protection. In other words, it flows from the political violence that has been imposed on their body.*

The physical transfer from the migrant prisons to the centres of SAR initiates the movement between potentiality (an asylum-seeker) and its possible becoming of actuality (receiving a humanitarian or a refugee status). However, this movement is also being  counteracted. This counteraction comes from the technicians, including the ones responsible for the architectural execution of detention centres. In the following story, the power of the architect appears as one of the most cunning powers; one which, through the genius of its own knowledge, manages to withhold to the wave of protest of the convicted. The following paragraphs will tell a fragmented story of action and counter-action. It has multiple characters, who follow different timelines and have not met one another, but are nevertheless intertwined in the precise execution of the moshenolov.


There is no centralised system for granting asylum in Bulgaria. The two main institutions that are responsible in this matter are the State Agency for Refugees (SAR) under the Council of Ministers, and the Department of Migration under the Ministry of Interior. The reception and registration centres or the so-called refugee camps (for example in Ovcha Kupel, Banya and Voenna Rampa) fall under the administration of SAR, while the Special Homes for Temporary Accommodation of Foreigners (SHTAF) are directed by the Ministry of Interior. The Law for the Foreigners in Bulgaria prescribes that asylum-seekers must be housed in the reception centres, while those that are undocumented, with expired visas or without a refugee status (i.e. they have gone through a process of illegalisation*) must be placed in Special Homes for Temporary Accommodation. Despite this semi-autonomy of institutions, there is a strong connection between them. It mostly begins and ends with the exchange of bodies – both from closed centres to the reception centres as well as the other way around. This exchange of bodies pertains exactly to the repositioning from illegality to legality and vice versa. It captures the manifestation of the dichotomous couple political-economic and its effects upon the bodies of migrants. The effects can be seen precisely in the desire of those detained in the Accommodation Centers to be moved, to be repositioned to reception centres. There, they will have the possibility to tell their stories and it is there that a corresponding judgment can be made: a genuine refugee or an economic migrant. Despite the uncertainty in terms of receiving a status, the repositioning from the SHTAF to SAR is a step in the direction of a possible acknowledgment of being a genuine refugee. Before that, however, one must first cross the European border.

We were a group of four people and we hid in the bushes, before we crossed [from Turkey to Bulgaria]. We crossed and after some time we were stopped by police. They made us sit on the ground, our arms behind our back and wait. They took our luggage.. Two cars came. We were taken to a police arrest in Svilengrad. We stayed two days, before we were taken to Court. We said we were refugees. After that we were placed on buses and told ‘Camp Sofia’. We were very happy. We celebrated in the bus. After just a few minutes the bus made a turn into a secondary road, ignoring the road sign for Sofia ahead. We realised we were not being sent to Sofia after the police told us to get off the bus and brought us in a yard behind tall walls with barb wire on top of the walls. We were not happy anymore. We realised we were in a prison now. Why? We are just refugees (interview Hasan, 2013).

One can see Lyubimets’ entrance on this image.

Hasan actually ended up in Lyubimets. Despite the fact that the building opened its doors on the 15th of March, 2011, the idea for such a centre in this area dates from the beginning of this century and closely accompanies Bulgaria’s preparation to enter the European Union with its prescriptions for Europeanisation. The project for Lyubimets’ construction was initiated back in 2005, one year before the prison for foreigners in Busmantsi was opened. I met with architect Ivaylo Petkov in order to place the physical location and the role of Lyubimets in the wider context of the Bulgarian migration system.* He is the founder of the ‘10 Architects’ office and works closely with the Department of Migration ever since the drafting of the first projects for accommodation facilities in Bulgaria. The initial idea behind SHTAF in Lyubimets has been to renovate the original building of the former army barracks and to restructure it in a way that would respond to the new needs. Despite these original intentions, architect Petkov manages to convince the Department of Migration that such a task would be unprofitable and inefficient with regards to its operational purpose:

…the reconstruction would have meant a 30% increase in the price because to adapt something that has never been something else [that has a different purpose], does not work. In the army barracks there is a certain discipline, after all you are training them [soldiers] in something, right? Here you cannot search for discipline. You can’t compare these centres to the barracks… It is not possible to look for the same thing as in the barracks. Here, you should rather look for some kind of shared tolerance, a shared tolerance in living together. (Interview with architect Petkov, September 2016)

In the end, only one of the old army barracks is reconstructed, while the rest of the complex is built from scratch. And even if architect Petkov thinks that one cannot speak of discipline in the accommodation centres for foreigners, it is nevertheless detectable. To be more precise, it is a side of disciplinary power, one which Michel Foucault describes not as a triumphant, but as a modest, suspicious power, and which functions through minor and simple procedures, rather than through majestic rituals [1]. This is easily detected in Lybimets’ time schedule. According to it, the detainees are split into groups and your time for walks, prayers, sports and even ‘personal time’ depends on which group you are assigned to (see appendix 1). The lights go out at 23.00h, while the dormitories remain locked between 22.30h and 08.00h. They are equipped with bunk beds and so-called ‘personal time’ is rather a luxury.

These buildings, such as the ones in Lyubimets and Busmantsi, also hide a potential for profit. There are rumours that six new ones will be opened for exploitation in the coming years. As to everyone with an ‘entrepreneurial spirit’, to architect Petkov it is clear that, if the initially invested capital is a little bit higher than permitted by the Procurement Law, the return-on-investment would also be higher. However, according to the architect’s flair, the state remains either blind-eyed or with its hands tied.

[The state] could make an open call, but instead someone just shows up, wins the procurement for 4 leva [2 eur] and starts their project… while I have delivered the know-how, and now they are asking me to give them this and that, it’s becoming a vicious circle. Nothing works in such a vicious circle… Officials [of the Department of ‘Migration’] appreciate what you do for them, but the system doesn’t allow them to take the right decisions. Moreover the society also doesn’t allow it, because people start complaining about Procurement Laws and price tags, here will be cheaper, there will be better. Well, cheap, but… (Interview with architect Petkov, September 2016).


The old barracks. Source: Ministry of Interior.

Further on I will elaborate more on the risks faced by entrepreneurs and the State when building cheap migrant prisons. I will here shortly mention that this risk is inevitably linked to the repositioning –  both social and physical, – of bodies from detention to reception camps. In the Turkish-Bulgarian border area, the buildings of both institutions (Lyubimets and Pastrogor), are just 20km away from one another. The migrants often describe the transit-registration centre for asylum-seekers in Pastrogor as the ‘big prison’, while Lyubimets is identified as the ‘small prison’.*

Visual representation of the ‘Lyubimets’ project by Architekti 10, architect Petkov’s office.

As can be seen on one of the photographs, and according to a tacit consensus, Lyubimets is a prison. But what is the criminal act does which Lyubimets actually sanctions? According to juridical prescriptions, the detainees at Lyubimets are to be expelled from Bulgaria. In practice those, who are not found guilty of economic migration, are set free. And since the ‘process’ (the decision whether one is a real refugee or not) is taken after having been detained, it is hard to define Lyubimets as a prison. If it were; it would aim to correct deviant behaviour, presuppose rehabilitation, a change of beliefs, or the prevention of future crimes and so on. Lyubimets doesn’t cure souls. It is evident for everybody that migrations won’t stop, despite the push-backs and deaths at the border. Lyubimets punishes the collective victim of structured social relations. Moreover, Lyubimets punishes economic migrants who, according to the definition of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), ‘choose to move*,  mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons’.

As Foucault makes clear, not only crimes as defined by law are subject to punishment, but also passions, instincts and desires. The practical punishment embedded in the liberal refugee system, is set in the discursive construction of the notion of an economic migrant. She flees from ‘the economy’, understood as free of violence, and thus making her fleeing unjustified. But the important thing to note is that Lyubimets punishes the potential of someone being an economic migrant; the potential that somebody of someone having run away from her own misery, caused by the non-functioning of markets, poverty, and unemployment. Lyubimets punishes the wish for a better life.

In order to free themselves from embodying this potential crime, in order to destroy, remove it and avoid a lengthier punishment, to attain the possibility of proving their uneconomical migration, the detainees at Lyubimets often resort to self-harm.

In August 2012, during a mobilisation around the camp in Pastrogor by the Initiative in Solidarity with Migrants, news came that a hunger strike has been initiated in Lyubimets. On the next day we we were in front of the prison. The taxi driver, who had taken us from Pastrogor to Lyubimets, brought us to an empty parking lot, which was located right next to the prison building and across the dormitories of the detainees. We were separated from the prisoners by a valley of thorns, a 6 meter high wall, neatly finished with barbed wire, and the space between the fence and the building, where the refugees were housed. Paradoxically, the large distance between us and the detainees made our communication easier. If we had been closer, we wouldn’t have been able to see each other due to the high walls surrounding the accommodation centre. At the same time, being removed from the entrance of the prison made the guards less suspicious. The parking lot is often used as a site of communication between people on both sides of the fence.* Nonetheless, verbal communication was only possible due to the fact that the use of mobile phones is permitted inside the prison.

While standing on the parking lot, a Syrian friend of ours called one of the detainees who had taken part in the announced hunger strike. After a few seconds, we saw someone climbing on the window bars of the third floor and waving a white shirt. On it was carefully written ‘Freedom’. When we looked closer, we saw around 40 other persons, all of which were waving their white shirts. We waved back. Further conversation on the phone made clear that the prisoners have only one demand, which is to be released from Lyubimets and moved to Pastrogor, where the group of 25 protesters, including two children, could continue the procedure for receiving a refugee status. ‘To move faster, faster’. The well-known (to us) phrase ‘we are just refugees’ was repeated time and time again, as if to convince the audience of the veracity of the fleeing.

Hunger strikes at prisons for migrants are one of the most frequent forms of protest, not only in Bulgaria, but in other parts of Europe. In Bulgaria, the most commonly expressed demand is precisely to be moved from a prison to the registration centres. Even though a hunger strike has the potential to attract the attention of the outside world, it is not the only tactic at hand to achieve a faster relocation to an open centre. Eventually the relocation to the building of SAR is mainly a conflict that unfolds between technicians (the moshenolovs) and migrants. All kinds of self-harm, riots, refusing walks, property damage, leaving lights on, keeping the taps open so that the water keeps flowing –  all these are unavoidable and existing protest acts, which are aimed at achieving somebody’s relocation from the prison to the registration centre. Kave, a Kurdish man at the age of about 25-30, showed me one of his wounds, which was self-inflicted as an act of protest against the four months he had already been detained. Kave had broken a glass at Lyubimets, and with the sharp side of his newly-acquired weapon he had slowly carved into his skin, from his shoulder to his wrist. The still healing wounds varied in size –  some were just small scratches, others long and impressive, reddened gaps. After a careful cleaning of his wounds at the sanitary room, Kave had been dragged into the isolation room. He, just like all others, just wanted to get out of Lyubimets. The Kurdish man fled Bulgaria only a few months after his relocation to Pastrogor, where, after having smashed about 20 chairs, the administration of SAR threatened him that they would not grant him any status.

We have seen how the location of the prison in Lyubimets allows for the internal protest to seep out. We have also seen how different forms of protest, which take place in the centre, are targeted not only at the own body, but also at the property of the Ministry of Interior (and respectively SAR) – there, where it hurts the most. As if these forms of protest have turned into a specific indicator, almost a disciplinary measure for the prison guards,  which expresses the will of the detainees to be relocated. The protest brings along with it an investment risk, which was also mentioned by architect Petkov. The risk consists in the fact that covering the costs inflicted by the resistance will turn out much higher than the initially estimated costs for the exploitation and maintenance of the prison. The protest also reveals the capacity of the accommodation centre to constitute a potential for capital. They could always be improved, and as for the investments – they could be increased.

As I mentioned before, there is an implicit understanding that no matter how many fences are built, the border will always be crossed. The situation is similar with migrant prisons. No matter how many isolation cells they build, the detainees will keep resisting. During my conversation with architect Petkov, it became increasingly clear that property damage is one of the biggest challenges for him and his product. ‘[Migrants] will come up with anything… This needs to be considered in its spatial dimension.’ The architect understands very well that innocent people are being held in these prisons: ‘if the faucets are just standard, they’d break them, if they don’t stop automatically, they’d just let them flow, because they are just people who have been forcibly brought there, they don’t wish to be there.’ As he puts it himself, ‘the innocent suffer along with the guilty.’ It is absolutely clear to him that the thrashing won’t stop, and that the continuous buying of sink faucets will raise the maintenance costs of the centre and respectively influence the return on the investment. And despite the fact that ‘on a civilisational level, measures have been taken [medical control and two stationaries—for communicable diseases and a regular one], on a spatial level there exists normalcy and abnormal normalcy. This means that it [every detail in the furnishing] needs to be properly adjusted for normal abnormal use, as a counter-reaction to malice.’ In order to combat the constant protests –  the so-called ‘malice’ – architect Petkov is preparing an ‘abnormal normal’ project for future camps. All basins will be equipped with a button, so that when these are pressed, the water will flow for about 7 to 14 seconds; the temperature of the water will be maximum 38 degrees, in order to prevent burnings; and the new bathrooms will have no drains. Instead, there will be holes under the walls, which will lead to drains in other premises. These would then be overlooked by the personnel, so that they don’t get clogged with socks. Architect Petkov also takes self-harm into consideration. He is truly convinced that ultimately Bulgarian migrant prisons need to follow some sort of standards, which are set on an international level and which take the necessity of the multi-functionality of such housings into account. The architect wants to make future prisons ‘vandal-resistant’. Welded wire meshes would have to be replaced with chicken wire, while spring beds would have to be done away with.* ‘There is danger that they make a weapon or some kind of tool out of everything… Despite the looser regime of this type of prisons, [the detained migrants] try to make a weapon out of everything.’

Architect Petkov deploys the weapon of innovation against the detainees’ resistance and explains how the Ministry of Interior faces losses because of it not willing to invest more money into innovative solutions. If his project gets realised, architect Petkov would save the Ministry of Interior around 77% of the expenses that Lyubimets is currently generating:

…a newly-build SHTAF could cost less than 12 million leva, while the exploitation of only one centre, housing around 600 people, costs 3-4 million leva. This means an exploitation of three years. If there 70% innovations are made, even if there are 50% innovations, this would mean that these six years will be payed off only by innovations.

Returning to our conversation about how much water is being wasted because of left-open faucets, clogged drains and other ‘hooliganisms’, the architect shows me the following chart:


Text in Bulgarian: “HOW? Actual savings in the exploitation of a Special Home for Temporary Accommodation of Foreigners in Lyubimets, calculated on the basis of 600 people”. According to the chart, the savings in water, gas and electricity would amount to BGN400 200 annually.

The refugee system in Europe works through and on the basis of the creation of differences. Those who cross the European borders are being categorised as migrants, refugees, pursuers of economic interests and so on. While keeping the separation economic/political and the therein hidden presumptions on the nature of what violence actually is, the refugee system creates the conditions for the practice of the moshenolov: to filter the subject of authentic violence (the refugee) from the subject of the inauthentic one (the economic migrant). In places such as Lyubimets, the struggle unfolds between the technicians of the moshenolov and the ‘tricksters’ themselves. This conflict also presumes the repositioning from one space of violence (such as Lyubimets) to another one (like Pastrogor). Or as migrants put it: from the small prison to the big one. However, this social and physical repositioning conveys the path from potential to the actual, that is, the path of becoming recognised as a genuine refugee. The repositioning needs to be accomplished by all means and this often becomes a catalyst for physical self-harm and the damaging of property owned by the actual criminal. The repositioning is a conflict in itself. The unfolding of this conflict through its inherent forms of protest doesn’t escape the attention of capitalists such as architect Petkov. The creation of a division between economic and political migrants in turn creates the conditions for accumulation of profit through constant innovation of the technologies of suppressing the struggle of subjects of this division.

Translated by Teo Poumpalov

Edited by Joli Badman & Neda Genova



[1] Foucault, M. (1995) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.

[2] Hristova, Tsvetelina, et al. “Trapped in Europe’s Quagmire: The Situation of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Bulgaria.” URL: http://bulgaria. bordermonitoring. eu/files/2014/07/Hristova-et. al-Trapped-in-Europes-Quagmire. pdf [24.3. 2015] (2014).


Raia Apostolova is a doctor in Sociology and Social Anthropology. The title of her thesis is Moving Labour Power and Historical Forms of Migration.

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