The role of migrants in commercial activity in Sofia

Remi Dormois, March 2013

This sheet is an extract from the article «  Cities and migrants, from world-place to passage-place ", from the European Journal of International Migration, written in 20061. It presents the organization of transnational migration of traders and the circulation of goods between, mainly, Syria, Iran and Bulgaria.

« Before 1991, Bulgaria was in solidarity with a « brotherly people » in the Middle East: the Republic of Syria. The important Bulgarian educational system received engineering students, students of high academic specialties. These students came partly from the families of the political leaders and partly from the families of wealthy merchants close to the government, mainly bazaris2. The Damascene merchant bourgeoisie3 preferred to send their children to Sofia, rather than to distant Moscow, not because the training was better there, but above all because the proximity, via Istanbul, made it possible to « pass on » goods that were not available on the Bulgarian market, and which were sought after by the inhabitants who had some means.

After 1991, several hundred of these Syrians obtained Bulgarian naturalization, and several hundred others obtained long-term residence permits. They then set up branches of stores in Damascus or Aleppo. In addition to jewelry and clothing, the marketing focused on electronic products, in collaboration with Iranians and Afghans.

So we investigated the Middle Eastern migration to Bulgaria, entering through Istanbul and the ports of Burgas and Varna. Since 1997, after the great crisis that saw the departure and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Turkish-speaking Bulgarians to Turkey, a transnational migratory flow was established between Afghanistan and the Black Sea rim, via Iran, the Emirates (and especially Dubai), Syria, Turkey and then Bulgaria. Returns were usually made from the Bulgarian port of Burgas to Georgia, via Odessa in Ukraine. Then, through Azerbaijan, these migrants returned to the towns and villages they had left twelve to eighteen months earlier. This is one of the forms of transnational migration that have been developing around the world since the 1990s.

These migrants, almost exclusively men, work here and there during their long journey, and, for the most part, serve as « porters » or smugglers for traders based in Dubai or Syria. From the Emirates, the latest electronic products, MP3 players, micro-computers, etc., are transported. The Afghan or Iranian « ants » involved in this traffic generally act on orders from Syrian merchants in Sofia. The equipment is tax-free and imported outside of the quota; the purchase price, by Syrians based in Dubai, is on average 65% lower than the price charged in Western Europe. Resales in Sofia bring them from -65% to -40%, which represents a net profit of about 3,000 euros for the courier and 2,000 euros for the last trader, on an average transport of 20,000 euros.

From Damascus and Aleppo, it is always gold jewelry that is transported : bought for 30% less than for resale in Bulgaria, this transaction gives rise to a split ; an Afghan trafficking « ant » can reasonably expect 4,500 euros from a passage. In Istanbul, leather clothes are piled into trailers. They are sewn or scratched, if they are counterfeits, in the district with a high concentration of Afghan garment workshops near Autogar, the major bus departure station for the Balkans. About a hundred leather jackets sold for about 60 euros each bring in about 1,500 euros for the smugglers.

Lastly, after a shift in Sofia, where Syrian merchants sell their goods on the spot or send them to Serbia, unsold goods from previous trips are transported by sea on the Black Sea from Burgas or Varna to Romania, Constanza, Ukraine, Odessa, and finally Georgia. This « return journey » brings in about 4,000 euros.

(…) Bulgarian Syrians are thus at the heart of vast international transfers of goods. It is probably the essential role of these increasingly dense flows of new transnational migrants to acquire and develop a circulatory skill that closely conforms to the projects of « savage » economic globalization, because it is ultra-liberal: to make goods reach the smallest solvent corners of the globe from all places and at all times, goods that could be deprived of by the vagaries of national policies, now instituted as local by the global web of this incessant trafficking. It is obviously paradoxical at first sight to note that these are forms of contraband very much in force in the pre-capitalist world that are put at the service of this great expansion of capitalism….

The densification of « Arab » populations, as Bulgarian demographers call them, in the heart of Sofia is not a classic phenomenon of the appearance of poor ethnic districts in an expanding city: the 34,000 Arabs, half of them legally resident and half of them unauthorized, (…) are generally richer than the Bulgarian inhabitants of the city, and represent the irruption of Middle Eastern commercial know-how, a vast « South », from Cairo to Islamabad.

When asked about the lack of local visibility of this wealth, the Syrian merchant I met at length told me that the role of his people was to consolidate their position in the city with discretion ; the stage of opening street shops being now well under way, it was advisable to generalize the effort to rehabilitate the old houses that form their neighborhood of residence, more than the renovations that are often noisy and poorly perceived in Sofia. We must not, he said, be assimilated to the local mafia populations, who ostensibly show off their wealth and provoke a deep aversion in their Bulgarian fellow citizens ".

1 Missaoui L. and Tarrius A. 2006. «  Cities and migrants, from place-world to place-passage  », in European Journal of International Migration, vol. 22 - n°2

2 Larousse dictionary definition. After the Iranian revolution, the composition of the middle class is the same as it was during the monarchy. Several groups can be identified: entrepreneurs, Bazaar merchants (called bazaris), the professions, managers of private or nationalized enterprises, the highest ranks of the national administration, professors, medium-sized landowners, army officers, and the lowest ranks of the Shiite clergy. source : Wikipedia

3 Relating to Damascus, its people, or its culture.


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