They fled the conflict raging in their native Syria, crossing Turkey and finally slipping into Bulgaria in hopes of making a new life in the European Union.
But these refugees now find themselves behind bars in a Bulgarian detention centre, shoved together like sardines as the EU’s poorest member struggles to cope with an ever-rising number of Syrian arrivals fleeing the two-and-a-half-year conflict.
“Freedom!”, “Help us leave,” refugees appeal from behind barred windows at the Lyubimets detention facility in southeastern Bulgaria, just over the border from Turkey.
“I am Syrian, a sociologist. I have been held prisoner here with my family for 67 days now,” 37-year-old Bashar Selim shouts to journalists from the window of one of the buildings.
Other men jostle around him, lifting their children to show them to the visiting reporters.
The civil war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the rebels fighting to overthrow it has now killed more than 100,000 people and made almost three million homeless, according to the United Nations.
With the bloodshed deepening, more than 1,670 Syrians have illegally entered Bulgaria this year, up from 200 over the same period of 2012, border police data show.
The number is small compared to countries that have welcomed tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, such as Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.
But the onslaught has caused Bulgaria’s three reception and temporary accommodation facilities — with a total planned capacity of 1,100 — to overflow, prompting authorities to place newcomers in two detention centres usually reserved for immigrants awaiting deportation.
One is Busmantsi, near the capital Sofia. The other is Lyubimets.
Unlike at the standard facilities, where the refugees are allowed to go out, the conditions here are “similar to prison”, UN refugee agency spokesman Boris Cheshirkov told AFP.
Not only detainees but human rights groups have protested, he added.
“Several people in the Busmantsi centre declared hunger strikes in recent weeks,” said Krasimir Kanev, chairman of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a human-rights group.
“Detention of asylum seekers constitutes a violation of European and national legislation,” he added.
One woman, Janda Hussein from Damascus, pleaded with journalists visiting the Lyubimets detention centre this week, saying: “Help us leave.”
The 29-year-old said she first fled with her husband and two-year-old daughter to Turkey. But, unable to find work there, they paid 1,250 euros ($1,700) to a trafficker to escort them across the border into Bulgaria.
They have shared a room at Lyubimets with seven other families for 48 days now, she said.
“They are all on edge,” Iskra Kasheva, a psychologist at Lyubimets, told AFP.
“Besides, the cohabitation of people from many different nationalities in such a small space creates additional tensions.”
Mariana Marinova, a top immigration official at the interior ministry, defended Bulgaria’s response.
“We provide accommodation and food and have not returned a single Syrian migrant since the beginning of the crisis,” she said.
Strict border controls — thanks to sophisticated EU-funded surveillance and tracking equipment — have kept the flow of illegal migrants away from the main Kapitan Andreevo border checkpoint between Bulgaria and Turkey.
Instead, most illegals brave the steep terrain and thick forests of the Strandzha mountain in the southeast, where they are usually abandoned by their Turkish guides, said Cheshirkov, the UN refugee agency spokesman.
Bulgarian media reported several cases of migrants who froze to death this winter.
Once safely in the country, they often pin their hopes on receiving humanitarian protection or refugee status, which will allow them to leave the shelters within three to 12 months and stay in Bulgaria.
Others, however, do not even apply, probably hoping to leave Bulgaria for another country.
This leaves authorities with no option but to keep them in the shelters indefinitely, said Marinova, the immigration official.
Faced with this crisis, the Bulgarian government’s security council will on Friday debate possible measures to boost the country’s reception capacities.
Earlier this week, however, Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin insisted that a major migrant wave was “unlikely”.