Murals in Sofia

Sandboxing migration

When Turkish president Recep Erdogan issued the threat to “open the doors and send 3.6 million migrants” to the EU, as reported by France24, his words did not go unnoticed. Bulgaria and its neighbours Greece and Cyprus quickly released a joint statement pointing to the need for “further funds” to deal with migration across their external borders. But while national governments are responsible for determining policy, it is in Europe’s cities that migration really occurs.

At the eighth Integrating Cities Conference, Olivier Onidi, then deputy director-general of security in the European Commission, asked “Why create hurdles for people in danger when we could bring them safety?” and declared that “cities must work together with national government and EU level to find what works.”

Spirit of play

In Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, this cooperation between state and city level is in full swing to ensure that the full potential of migration is leveraged to realise social and economic benefits and a harmonious society; so, too, is the spirit of experimentation to ‘find what works’.

“Exactly the same way as kids play in their sandboxes,” says Sevdalina Voynova, director of the Sofia Development Association “We’re doing the same thing with engineers and tech people.”

Cities have to find a way

‘Policy sandboxing’ means getting together people from different backgrounds, NGOs, academia, employers, different departments of the municipality, national government, civil society and migrant groups, and pooling knowledge to come up with new ideas. “It has been good because nothing is set in stone, and the environment is also changing quickly, so it allows us to adapt easily,” Voynova says. “The majority of policies are delegated to national government, but actual services should be provided at city level. So basically, cities have to find a way.”

Scientific method

The city chooses some ideas and tries them out in different areas, comparing the results and then bringing what works well to a wider scale, “this allows us to have an experiment in a controlled area for a limited time and bring it forward from there.”

These “short term experiments” take place in all sorts of fields in which the city works. “In cultural activities, in public funding for projects that leave a mark on the urban environment, like multi-ethnic gardens and shared spaces, or placing migrants in internships in media sectors” says Voynova.

Heads together

Beyond the scientific edge this method gives the city, the process itself is useful for all the groups involved: “It also allows an open dialogue,” Voynova explains, “Because who are the other experimenters in this ‘play’? We can all talk and learn from each other, and even when it doesn’t lead to greater innovation, it leads to greater understanding, and a better feeling of community.” By meeting and working together, all parties increase their capacities and expand their horizons.

“There is a lot of knowledge out there that the city doesn’t have, but there is also a lot that the NGOs and so on don’t have,” Voynova points out. While certain NGOs may have very expert knowledge on a particular topic that they are dealing with, and that the city can benefit from, the NGOs may well lack a broader overall vision of the situation, which the city can provide.

This symbiosis also occurs in the academic sectors. Students in training need to practice their skills, and migrants can require some orientation in the ways of their new society. In Sofia, students in disciplines like public management or law make themselves available to provide advice to those in need of it. The university has also launched new programmes, one for informal education of migrants and one for social work for refugees.

A need for labour

Since its accession to the EU, Bulgaria felt a lot of outward migration, both the phenomenon known as brain drain and the loss of those who practice manual labour. Among other factors, this has led to a very low unemployment rate of 4.2%, which, in the eyes of most economists, is considered ‘full employment’, below which it is actually considered dangerous to fall. The arrival of migrants can therefore provide much needed relief in the labour market, especially in underserved sectors, if the right strategies are put in place to enable migrants to activate their potential.

“We are in a need of more workers,” says Voynova, “we need people for our labour market.” However, the types of industries that need workers do not remain constant. “The environment is always changing,” which is why the city of Sofia is collaborating with a number of different organisations in the employment sector to ensure that migrants can provide appropriate and useful services.

“We’re talking a lot with employers in mid-sized companies, currently feeling the need of more work power. We’re working with the chamber of commerce, trade unions and universities.” The city itself is also an employer that is walking the talk, according to Voynova: “The municipality is a team player because it is the municipal enterprises that maintain parks and gardens.”

To stay or to go?

However, Voynova calls attention to the fact that the number of migrants isn’t the only thing that changes as you go west through Europe, “Western European countries’ approach to integration is different because people are settling there forever. Most of ours come here for a number of years, settle for a number of years, and then move on to where they think they will have different opportunities.”

Different groups and individuals come to Sofia with very different lengths of stay in mind, and that affects the kinds of programmes that they are willing or able to subscribe to. “It takes a lot of measures to assist someone in being a useful and valuable member of this community for as long as they want to.”

This is why the city is particularly interested in shared spaces, including shared gardens, an area in which Sofia will be receiving European funding as part of the Eurocities-led CONNECTION project, co-financed by the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund. Through this project, the city will not only implement new integration action, but also share its best practices with other European cities.


Sofia is intent not to create a two-tiered system, where migrants and locals are treated differently. “Within the city we do not have a specific bureau for migrants and refugees or front desk, they have to get services exactly as I do as a Bulgarian citizen.” On the other hand, the city recognises that there are difficulties for newcomers to orient themselves, and that dealing with these difficulties is an important part of providing equal access.

“The difference is the language. They will receive services in another language and I will receive them in Bulgarian. In the sandboxing we’re also looking for ways to make sure you can get exactly where you want to go. Often foreigners get confused when they enter a big building. Our buildings are big. I mean they’re big. We have inherited a lot of big buildings from the past.”

The experience of these buildings can be very daunting for those used to navigating on a more human scale. “You enter a long corridor and there are doors and doors and doors, and the language is different and we don’t have the same alphabet.”

To tackle this, the city employees are available to direct migrants and give them support. “We make sure that the particular target person knows where to go and has some people whose job is to help, taking you there, helping you fill in the forms.”

In Voynova’s experience, there are advantages and disadvantages to using the same system for migrants and locals. “Both have positives and negatives. And that is why sandboxing is important to see what is the next step, the next requirement, where we should focus.”

Heroes and strangers

International students in Sofia

Effective policy is one of two key areas in which the city is working on migration – the other is communication. According to Voynova, “narratives matter, the way we talk about integration matters, the way we talk about citizenship matters.”

She points out that in the science of narratology there are two prominent narrative types that dominate almost all stories throughout human history, “One is ‘a hero goes on a journey’ and the other is ‘a stranger comes to town’. These are very central to migration,” although, as Voynova is aware, people often miss the fact that these are just two sides of the same coin. “When we travel we are heroes, like Greek heroes going out to conquer the world. When people come here they present different ways of looking at things and challenge our way of seeing the world.”

As in its work on policy, the city has gathered diverse expertise to work on communication, “we have as members some journalists from national TV, from print media, because we need their input for what makes a good story. We get together to discuss methods of communication, stories, things that work or didn’t’ work.”

Sofia knows that it’s not just what you say that counts, but also where you say it. One of the modes that Voynova has been experimenting with is screens in the metro and tramway. “We use the screens for short videos, announcements, interesting stories promoting awareness building and communication. The metro screens are seen by over half a million people daily and are provided for free by the city.”

Seduced by Sofia

The stories that the city focuses on are those of migrants who were seduced by Sofia. “They are people that didn’t initially want to remain in Sofia but eventually made this choice, and how they developed their business or their life here.” However, the city is also not shy acknowledging where its strategy still falls short. “We also try to be somewhat self-critical, so there are also recommendations where we show how foreigners see Sofia, where they have had difficulties.”

A matter of trust

“It’s a sensitive issue,” Voynova says “That’s why it’s a matter of trust.” Building that trust takes time, and is one of the fruits of the collaborative approach that the city has taken on all fronts. “It’s not meant to be a process that comes to an end, but one that is always continuing.”

Communication isn’t just what you say, but also what you do. Sofia has been experimenting with venues for public space events in which migrants can enrich the lives of the incumbent population with their culture and traditions.

“For example, the association of Africans in Sofia receive some assistance from the city, as well as from their members and from private benefactors. We can help them find spaces for their events.” But choosing the right venue is a learning curve.

Curating an audience

“Where can they meet that will facilitate them but also be a good spot for integration with the local community? We’ve tried offices, small theatres and so on, just to see what works.” Some spaces, though they may be impressive, don’t suit the feeling of the event. According to Voynova “A municipal theatre is too grand, people don’t feel well, we won’t fill the entire theatre and participants feel intimidated by the space. But it works well with a public space where there is a diverse programme, where there are different kinds of things and different kinds of audiences. Curating a space also means curating an audience, and choosing different locations around the city. In this we are following the lessons learned over the last two years.”

Direct contact

The city is trying to leverage the gap between the fear and hysteria that is sometimes worked up by certain ideological groups and the real personal experiences of people. “The more you know, the more people you meet, the more you are aware of these people that live next door, their culture, traditions and the challenges they face, the more you understand that we are all in one community and in the same boat.”

Voynova goes as far as saying that “the only way we can achieve sustainable results is through direct contact. No matter what better services we provide, this doesn’t replace the necessity to bring people together, to accommodate each other and little by little to trust each other.” 

That is why these events tend not to just be performances, but chances for real interactions and therefore integration to emerge. “There is a multi-cultural collective, a physical garden with plants, some outdoor activities, some cooking lessons.” Sofia prefers events that are not just ephemeral, but leave traces that lend a permanent added value to the city. “The good thing is when it stays there,” Voynova says, “it gives a combination of physical environment and programming in the city.”

A city of murals

This philosophy of permanence is nowhere more apparent than in the murals commissioned by the city. “We take pride in Sofia in our graffiti and murals, and we have at least two routes you can go on to see our murals. We have a couple this year that we designed and painted together with migrants based on their stories and they look really nice.”

Perhaps the mural that speaks most to Sofia’s relationship with migration is not one of those produced by the modern city, but rather that in Sofia’s Boyana Church, produced in the 13th Century. Among those depicted in the mural there is the earliest known representation of St Petka, a migrant saint much venerated throughout Balkan states, who began her journey in present-day Turkey and spent her life travelling across borders. Indeed, she continued to travel after her life had expired, when her remains were brought as relics to Bulgaria.

This ancient mural serves as a reminder that migration, and the celebration of migrants, is not a new and threatening phenomena that stands in relief against Bulgarian tradition, but rather a proud and longstanding part of that tradition, inextricable from the grander narrative of the capital, Sofia.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer