Werleman’s WorldviewThe British Muslim Students Caught Up in the ‘War on Terror’ in Bulgaria
CJ Werleman speaks to Mohammad Amin about how his life has been derailed over terrorism accusations with no evidence behind them
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“The Bulgarian Government has killed my future prospects – it has killed my life.”
What has happened to Mohammad Amin, a 35-year-old British Muslim medical student, could happen to countless numbers of British Muslims who have travelled to Bulgaria to pursue their tertiary studies.
The eastern European country is not only home to some of the most affordable college tuition fees on the continent, but also the largest indigenous Muslim minority within the borders of the European Union.
But Amin has been caught in the middle of far-right political winds that crisscrossed the English Channel during the ‘War on Terror’.
After the UK left the EU in 2020, Amin, who was about to start the fifth year of his six-year degree at Bulgaria’s Medical University of Pleven, had to apply for Bulgarian residence and an ID card. He knew that his now defunct EU passport would no longer be valid when he planned to return to the country after visiting family in London over the New Year semester break.
Amin had heard accounts from fellow British Muslims students who had reported being harassed by Bulgarian immigration officers during the ID card application process. He had also heard rumours that the country’s intelligence agencies had infiltrated student WhatsApp groups to spy on the school’s Muslim student body. But he didn’t think much about these stories at the time.
He soon realised there was substance to their claims, however, when he was “randomly selected” for an interview with Bulgarian immigration authorities.
“The immigration officer asked me almost nothing about my studies or the previous four years I was a student at the university,” he said. “Instead, he asked a bunch of questions related to my religious faith, such as ‘how do you feel about Shia or Sunni Muslims?’, ‘do you pray five times per day?’, ‘do you read and speak Arabic?’, ‘do you eat bacon?’ and ‘do you go to bars?’.”
Amin answered the questions honestly. Shortly afterwards, he was told that his application for an ID card had been approved, so he flew back to London to visit his family.
But, when he landed in the Bulgarian capital on 21 March 2021, Amin was refused entry into the country, after being told his visa had been rejected. On what grounds, the border official did not say. After being detained at the airport for three days, he returned to London confused, distraught and panicked, knowing that the new school year would be starting without him.
Amin enlisted the help of a Bulgarian lawyer, who lodged an appeal on his behalf but, by this time, Europe and the UK were going into lockdown due to the Coronavirus. The university allowed Amin to continue his fifth year of study online while he waited for his appeal process to run its course.
After delays, a local court in Sophia delivered him an unexpected judgment on 21 October 2021: the visa ban would stand because Amin had been identified by Bulgaria’s National Security Agency as a “threat to national security” and the court had no standing to overrule the decision.
Bulgaria had determined, without any evidence, that Amin was not in the country to study but to “carry out acts of terrorism in Pleven and establish an Islamic caliphate, and traffic people for jihad in Syria”.
Shocked but not deterred, Amin’s lawyer took his case all the way to the country’s Supreme Court, where his appeal was rejected on 28 June 2022. It also determined that assessing the merit or substance of national security decisions relating to foreign citizens was not within its remit.
“I feel I and others are owed some degree of protection and help from injustice,” Amin told Byline Times. “My family and I have made great financial sacrifices and otherwise, and I have spent the most valuable part of my life pursuing this degree. It’s not fair that these efforts can be jeopardised because of one immigration officer’s ignorant and overzealous attitude towards me.”
Anas Mustapha, head of public advocacy at CAGE – a UK advocacy organisation which aims to support those impacted by the ‘War on Terror’ – said the group has “uncovered a pattern of Islamophobic harassment by the Bulgarian authorities targeting British Muslim Students in the country”.
“This is hinged on the most extreme and absurd Islamophobia, at times framing students speaking in Arabic or their native tongues as security risks and slapping some with entry bans and interrogating countless others. The Islamophobia is systemic and institutional,” he said.
There are no further avenues for Amin to challenge the terrorism allegations made against him, leaving him to wonder how many other European immigration and intelligence agencies now view him to be an alleged terrorist recruiter.
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He said details of his case has sparked alarm among other British Muslim students studying in the country. “They are petrified. Many are now too scared to visit their families in the UK during semester breaks, worried they won’t be allowed to re-enter the country and resume their degrees.”
His case is likely to have a chilling effect on those who plan or had planned to pursue a university degree in Bulgaria.
As it stands, Amin is unable to complete the final year of his six-year medical degree. The money and time he has invested into chasing the career of his dreams has reached a dead end, he said. “Medicine is so dear to me, but the Bulgarian Government has robbed me of my love.”
Unable to transfer his earned university credits to a UK university, Amin would have to seek an alternative school in Europe but, even if accepted, he would have to re-do his third, fourth and fifth year of studies.
“As a mature-aged student, and with already so much accrued debt, this is just not feasible for me,” he told Byline Times.
Lawyers have told Amin that he should take his case to the European Court of Human Rights, where he should expect a favourable verdict – but this process could take more than five years.
Amin’s personal crisis is another reminder that the ‘War on Terror’ continues to stalk innocent Muslims at home.