Push-Backs: Bulgarian-Turkish cooperation leads to more violation of human rights

On the 11th of August 2016, Bulgaria was criticized by the UN rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who sees ‘worrying signs’ in Bulgaria’s detention regime for migrants. He said he is concerned about the court cases in the Svilengrad Regional Court. Many migrants have to face such cases, because of criminal prosecution for “irregular border crossing“.

There are migrants who do not have access to adequate legal representation or translation services, to the extent that they are sometimes even unaware that they have been prosecuted – this is clearly contrary to fair trial and due process safeguards.

Furthermore, Zeid raised concerns about physical abuses, theft and push-backs, done by law enforcement officials into “neighboring countries“. He criticized the conditions in Bulgarian detention camps and the Bulgarian government for doing not enough against the right wing vigilante groups on the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian authorities continued with it’s practice at the border. On the same day, the Ministry of Interior (MoI) stated that they “stopped 220 irregular migrants“ to cross from Turkey to Bulgaria in “eight separate attempts“. In Sofia the police checked the documents of migrants in Maria Luiza Boulevard and around the Banya Bashi Mosque, 166 migrants were arrested. According to the police they had “no identify documents“.

Furthermore, in the same week, Bulgarian authorities deported a suspected “Gülenist“, a Turkish person, who tried to search for asylum in Bulgaria for months. The businessman was residing in Bulgaria already since early 2016 and in March a Bulgarian court ruled that he could be facing political repressions in Turkey.1 Nevertheless, he was denied political asylum on the 29th of July 2016, some days after the coup attempt in Turkey. He was arrested on the 10th of August during a routine control and pushed off one day later, by driving him to the southeastern border of Bulgaria and passing him there to the Turkish border police.

Maya Manolova, the Bulgarian Ombudswoman, stated that such practice contravenes the Bulgarian constitution and international laws. On the contrary, Turkish newspapers welcomed the deportation, the AKP linked newspaper Yeni Şafak concluded that the Bulgarian prime minister, Boyko Borisov, has now fear of higher migration flows from Turkey to Bulgaria. Borisov, tried to defend the case as a normal practice and was quoted by the news agency Novinite by the following:

We have sent back [to Turkey] from the border 25 000 people since the beginning of the year, and 1000 [have been sent back] to Greece. All of them have been returned in the same manner.

Shortly after the deportation, the Turkish prime minister, Binali Yıldırım and Borisov, met and talked about a possible bilateral agreement about “migration“ between Bulgaria and Turkey. At this weekend, another deportation of two men took place: Two suspected “Kurdish activists“ were deported from Bulgaria to Turkey.

Still, hundreds of people tried to cross the border from Turkey to Bulgaria this week. On the 14th of August 2016, the MoI made public that only within 24h they stopped 140 migrants to cross from Turkey and 13 to cross from Greece. The Bulgarian border police stated that they stopped 1,858 “irregular migrants“ to enter Bulgaria since the beginning of August 2016. Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) is more than deeply concerned about the obvious violations against the non-refoulement principle and calls the Bulgarian government to stop immediately the push-backs and deportations of people, who are seeking shelter in Europe.

1 Even two courts decided positively for the man – first of all the Sofia City Court and secondly the Sofia’s Court of Appeals had refused the extradition, over a lack of guarantees for a fair trial in Turkey.
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Breaking News: Man dies after push-back from Bulgaria

Several Turkish speaking news sites (citing an article of a journalist from the Anadolou Agency) were reporting about a new victim of the European Border Regime. The 28 year old Iranian Reza Hassani was missing for about 18 days. He was found dead in the jungles of Karacadağ. It was reported to Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) from another source that he was beaten up together with a friend and pushed back „by Bulgarians into Turkey“.  After the push-back he was rarely able to move and got stuck in the middle of nowhere without a phone or food. The police showed a photo of Reza Hassani’s dead corpse to his friend and told him that they will transport the body to the forensics-center in Istanbul.

It is still not clear if the push-back was done by Bulgarian border police or by members of one of the violent and nationalist voluntary groups. In the last weeks, it was reported by several international media that Tatjana Festerling, a former leading person of the German PEGIDA movement, and her colleague Edwin Wagensveld from the Netherlands showed solidarity with these groups. Some of these “voluntary“ groups hold connections to criminal organizations or are part of them. They are practicing physical violence and intimidation that produce strong permanent injuries and result sometimes even in push-backs to Turkey.

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Bulgaria responds with push-backs to the increasing amount of asylum-seekers

In the last days there were reports appearing concerning several groups of people who managed to pass from Greece to Bulgaria. It was furthermore reported by the news agency Novinite that 53 migrants were quickly sent back by the Bulgarian authorities to Greece. They were caught in Kulata. Another group of 34, were caught in a freight train on the route from Greece to Bulgaria. A next report of Novinite claims, that at one day only in 24 hours another 215 migrants were prevented to enter Bulgaria – 62 tried to cross at Novo Selo (from Greece to Bulgaria), 155 tried to cross from Turkey to Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian Ministry of Interior (MoI) announced later on in their public statistics, that altogether 360 people were caught in the last week at the Bulgarian borders – 169 at the border to Turkey, 152 at the border to Serbia and 39 in the country itself. 287 migrants left the refugee camps in a week, 281 of them were with no status. After further statistics, 250 migrants where caught in total, while they tried to cross from Greece to Bulgaria, since the beginning of the year.

Already on the 13th, 14th and 15th of May 2016, Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) interviewed several refugees in Belgrade about their experiences in Bulgaria. In the following, we document some of this testimonies :

When we passed the border from Turkey to Bulgaria, we were arrested from the Bulgarian border police. We were a group of 20 people, also a family was part [of the group]. When the police arrested us, they firs checked our documents and then they took everything, like for example money. I had 200 Euro […] The Bulgarian police took 200 Euro from me and a Galaxy S4 mobile. And everything what I had in my backpack, like trousers, T-Shirts, a jacket, they emptied out. […] We were carrying only our underwear and were kicked. […]  Afterwards they set the dogs on us, but they did not bite us. We sat in front of the dogs and the dogs did not move (Jamal, 32 years, Afghanistan 1)

Later, the whole group was pushed-back by Bulgarian border police. BMB was told about another group of 18 people, that was beaten up by the Bulgarian border police and got as well pushed-back when they crossed the Turkish-Bulgarian border.

They [the border police] asked us from where we are coming and suddenly they hit us. Afterwards they hit us, they searched our pockets. I had 1200 Euro in my pocket stored to continue my journey later. Later they took my money and my two mobile phones. When I said, please give me at least one mobile phone back, four police men took me on the side and started to hit me (Nargis, 36 years, Pakistan).

The third group got in contact with the Bulgarian border police when they already had arrived in Sofia. The police arrested the people and brought them to a police station. There they had to stay for three days. Later they were brought to Busmantsi:

We were 22 people and wanted to pass the border from Bulgaria to Turkey. Six days we walked in the rain, we crossed mountains, rivers, mud…in the jungle. We slept during the day because of the monitoring cameras […] In Sofia we waited at a secure spot for a car, that could bring us to Serbia. But there was a police raid taking place. […] When the police entered the room, they started to beat people. Some started to run, some remained seating. They have beaten up all people with sticks and pulled and pushed them into a car (Samir, 21 years, Afghanistan).

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Bulgaria: Still going to be a poor guardian of European’s External Borders

At the beginning of May 2016, Sofia and Ankara signed a protocol about returning migrants from Bulgaria back to Turkey from June the 1st, who crossed the border in an “illegal“ way. Since this protocol was never released, it is not clear what this means for the estimated 50 migrants, which are still arriving in Bulgaria on a daily basis to transit the country to Western Europe. The Signing was accelerated after the EU and Turkey sealed their controversial deal on returning refugees (on March 18 this year), which forced Brussels to make serious concessions to Ankara in an attempt to halt the migrant flow. Until now, it is not really clear if this deal could be implemented completely, as the European Union has already thought about a temporally suspending of the Visa agreement and Turkey for his part thought about opening its borders officially.

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Voenna Rampa: Living on the margins of society

The recent statement of the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, reported by the Focus News Agency that the situation in the Bulgarian refugee camps is perfect, can still not be confirmed. Today, poor living conditions are an ongoing issue in virtually all refugee camps, operated by the State Agency for Refugees (SAR), throughout the country. Literally many of the people living on the margins of Bulgaria’s society.

One example is the camp Voenna Rampa, located in the north of Sofia, a former abandoned school in a complex of former military barracks in an industrial area, which is hosting more than 400 asylum seekers, where is normally place for about 800 people. It seems, that at the moment, the influx of people fleeing through Bulgaria is increasing once again. Only in the last 1 1/2 weeks, 300 additional inhabitants were accommodated in the building.

Since the last two years a lot changed in the camp, especially in the maintenance of the buildings. During the last years, the building was renovated and thermal isolation as well as heating and windows were installed. In the yard a playground for children was built. The complex has now more toilet rooms than previously, but right now the showers can not be used, because they are out of work. People need to take a shower with a bucket. Especially in the corners of the toilets there is a lot of mildew and water damages. The toilets are on each floor directly next to the sleeping rooms, so people are exposed to these defects.

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Bulgarian state supports racist groups which are hunting for migrants

Since the private TV station bTV reported about people who are patroling with All-terrain vehicles through the border region of Bulgaria and calling their leader a national hero, more groups popped up in public which claim for arresting the migrants who crossed to Turkish-Bulgarian border. Although, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee called for prosecution of the case, the prime minister, Boyko Borissov, thanked in a statement these patrols:

I personally talked with them [the voluntary patrols] and thank them. I send the director of the Border Police to meet and coordinate with them.

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Legal and organizational problems in Bulgaria’s closed camps

At the moment, there are three camps of a closed type existing in Bulgaria. The buildings, which are administered from the Migration Directorate of the Ministry of Interior (MoI), provide 1,040 places: The Detention Center in Busmantsi has 400, the Detention Center in Lyubimets (since recently) 400 and the Detention Center in Elhovo has 240 places. In these accommodation facilities unaccompanied minors are being held illegally, which was reported by the Ombudsman some days ago. A recent statement, done by a team from the Center for Legal Aid – Voice in Bulgaria (CLA), confirmed the report.

It [the CLA-Team] met a number of detained unaccompanied minors, whom the centre’s administration had listed as accompanied by a seemingly randomly chosen person who happened to be a part of the same group traveling together and smuggled into the country.[…]

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Breaking News: Two dead bodies found near Malko Tarnovo

On Wednesday, the 23rd of March at 11 a. m., the Border Police found two dead bodies at the near of Malko Tarnovo in the Mishkova Plains, one kilometer away from the Bulgarian-Turkish border. This was reported by the press office of the police in Burgas. The bodies of the two males, who likely “illegally“ crossed the border, which were already decayed were brought to Burgas hospital for an autopsy. The police could not find any papers with them and is currently investigating the case, said Lora Lyubenova a speaker of the Border Police. The last incident of this type came out in the open in February 2016, when two women froze to dead in the same region.

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Ministry of Interior searches new space for refugee camps

Recently, talks about accommodating refugees in a 200 square meters big old military barracks in Kresna (Blagoevgrad Province) triggered a large, and in some cases xenophobic, protest on the 21st of March, held by Bulgarian citizens in Kresna. About a thousand people gathered, when they heard that there is a possibility that asylum seekers could be accommodated soon in their town. Some of the protesters also threatened that next time they are going to block highway E-79, which is close to the town of Kresna, or the Greek border itself. In a report, done by bTV, a citizen stated:

I am afraid that they are coming as conquerors. They come to take our territories. […] We are Christians before everything else. I cannot imagine my granddaughter to be wearing a burka.

The Idea of opening a refugee camp in Kresna, which could be used in the case of a higher migration influx from Greece and Macedonia, was discussed between the Interior Minister Rumyana Bachvarova and the mayor of the town, Nikolay Georgiev. Later the people were assured by the authorities, that for now the unused building will not become a refugee center but it became clear that the Ministry of Interior (MoI) is generally looking for such buildings to create new centers and therefore discussed several options.

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The EU/Turkey-agreement and (possible) effects on Bulgaria

As the EU-Turkey agreement came into effect on today, the 20th March 2016, there could again emerge a tremendous change of the main route, that people use to move towards Western Europe. Greece will turn literally into a detention zone and many migrants will likely try to avoid the deportation back to Turkey. Recently, the Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees (SAR) published with a delay the registered asylum applications from January and February, this year. According to its statistics, 3,160 asylum-requests were registered during that time. German state media reported about a total influx of 7,500 refugees who ended in Bulgaria until the 16th March. In addition, several volunteers, working in different camps in Bulgaria, claimed that there is a bigger influx of migrants arriving, during the last days and the police is detecting 200-300 migrants on a daily basis in the area of Malko Tarnovo. Only in the last 2 1/2 months Bulgaria has detained 1,124 migrants.

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