LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Canadian 60s era singer-turned-soy protein tycoon is planning to buy up homes and land in abandoned Bulgarian villages in a controversial project to create more housing for refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war, according to news reports.
Billionaire Yank Barry, a former singer with the 1960s band The Kingsmen, has teamed up with boxing legend Evander Holyfield to help Syrians arriving in Bulgaria - a country that has faced strong criticism by U.N. refugee officials for its treatment of asylum seekers.
Barry has already rented a hotel on the outskirts of the capital Sofia as well as two houses to accommodate people who would otherwise be stuck in shelters that refugee experts have described as seriously substandard.
He is now planning to buy houses and land in sparsely populated villages in the northwest of the country for Syrian families, Bulgarian media report.
"There are many deserted villages in Bulgaria which I can repeople," Barry is quoted as telling Bulgarian Pressa Daily this month. He said the project would be developed in the next six to seven months.
Some 10,000 asylum seekers arrived in Bulgaria last year, two-thirds of them Syrians. The European Union’s poorest county, which normally sees just 1,000 asylum seekers a year, was taken by surprise.
The authorities dumped many Syrians in empty buildings with little or no assistance, according to refugee experts who said conditions had been deplorable, but were beginning to improve.
Barry told Canada’s Globe and Mail in November that he had leased the hotel on the outskirts of Sofia through his Global Village Champions foundation, which is funded by the profits from his VitaPro soy protein business. Holyfield is the charity’s goodwill ambassador.
However, the Sofia News Agency says their latest plan to repopulate deserted villages with Syrians has attracted strong criticism online.
Some readers have suggested the philanthropist should accommodate the Syrian families in Canada, noting that it is one of the world's most sparsely populated countries. Others have questioned why anyone would want to live in a place that has already been abandoned by locals because of the lack of work opportunities.
Most Syrians enter Bulgaria from Turkey, which is hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees from its war-ravaged southern neighbour.