SOFIA Bulgaria said on Wednesday it would extend a barbed wire fence along its border with Turkey by a further 130 km (80 miles) in an attempt to prevent a growing number of refugees, mainly from Syria, entering the European Union member state.
However, the United Nations' refugee agency criticized the announcement by Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, saying it would endanger more lives and increase the role of human traffickers.
More than 18,000 refugees, mainly from Syria's civil war, have crossed the border from Turkey to seek asylum in Bulgaria in the past two years, increasing the pressure on the EU's poorest member state, data from the interior ministry showed.
Borisov's decision will extend a 33-km fence built last year along Bulgaria's 240-km southeastern border with Turkey. The government expects a new influx of refugees in the spring, when the weather will become more favorable.
"This (extension) is absolutely necessary," Borisov told lawmakers. "There is no such (refugee) pressure where such facilities exist."
The interior ministry will prepare details for the extension, including construction deadlines, by the end of January, the government said in a statement.
"The defense facility will decrease the refugee pressure on Bulgaria by around seven times," Borisov said.
The fence will save Bulgaria around 2 million levs ($1.20 million) a month in policing costs. Sofia has deployed more than 1,000 police officers in the area to limit the influx.
More than 11,000 refugees sought humanitarian or refugee status in Bulgaria last year after crossing from Turkey.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has repeatedly urged Bulgaria to practise an "open door policy" toward the refugees, said further restrictions would create problems elsewhere.
"This is increasingly leading people, including families with small children, to undertake more dangerous crossings and it further puts refugees in the hands of relentless smugglers and traffickers," Boris Ceshirkov, UNHCR spokesman in Bulgaria, told Reuters.
(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov and Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Gareth Jones)