According to the State Agency for Refugees (SAR), 19,418 asylum applications were registered in Bulgaria (mainly by Afghan, Syrians and Iraqi nationals) last year. From all Afghan asylum seekers, 2,5% of them got a positive decision. Currently, the SAR suggests that 3,728 asylum seekers are accommodated in the open centers and the Migration Directorate of the Ministry of Interior stated that 984 are living in “closed-type“ centers. Now, two reception centers, managed by the SAR, are existing as closed centers: One part of the center in the outskirt of Harmanli, which opened after the riot in November 2016 and another one opened in the same center already in August.
At the beginning of this month, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) published an update of their Bulgarian report, which was done by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC). In terms of integration support, the published report speaks about 2016 as a third “zero integration“ year. Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) asked the Bulgarian Red Cross recently about a pilot project which was in force between August 2015 and June 2016. It was created to support housing for refugees. During this time only seven refugees profited from that program. In December 2016, the Human Rights Committee ruled out that a Syrian family, currently living in Denmark with a Bulgarian residence permit, would not be protected concerning “accessing health care, or risks of destitution and hardship“ in Bulgaria. In the paper, a report of BMB was cited.
Until today, the situation regarding to access to territory has not changed, too. The Bulgarian police still continues to „apprehend irregular arrivals, to fingerprint and detain them for deportation“, one could read in the report of ECRE. In addition, the BHC registered an increasing number of violent push-backs in 2016.
Every year several migrants die in Bulgaria on their way to cross Bulgaria’s borderland – especially in the winter period. Actually nobody knows how many people died all in all in Bulgaria’s borderlands in the last years, because there is no statistics available. Often migrants who passed through the region report about corpses, which they had seen in the woods. The migrants try to cross in the mountain region where there is no fence blocking the way. Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) calls the Bulgarian authorities to rethink their politics towards refugees as a whole and asks them additionally to collect statistics about the various deaths which happen in the border region.
This is the first human being who was killed by the European border system in Bulgaria, in 2017. Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) argues that the new installed European Border and Coast Guard Agency, which came into force on October the 6th 2016 at Bulgaria’s Kapitan Andreevo Border Checkpoint, cannot stop incidents like this. Therefore, it is tremendously important to create legal passages to prevent these kind of tragedies.
The following contribution is an English translation of a report, which was written by the human rights lawyer Valeria Ilareva, from the Foundation for Access to Rights (FAR) which was published in December 2016.
My day begins with a legal hearing at 9am. The case is of the more serious sort, but I’m eased by the thought that we’re at a judge. Meaning that among „the judges“ exist only a small number of actual judges – those trying to decide their cases objectively and without biases. Even in the event of a verdict to your client’s disadvantage, you nevertheless know that the hearing was carried out with humane attitude and the outcome of the lawsuit wasn’t predetermined. During the hearing the judge acts unusually irritated and reacts sharply on the preliminary submitted request for taking of evidence. She mentions that the most overburdened judges are facing disciplinary procedures for delaying lawsuits. I answer that I understand her and that I am doing everything within my possibilities not to slow down the case. I indeed understand her. At 11am the judges from the Sofia Regional Court hold a protest in front of the Supreme Judicial Council.
Since two days, the health checks in Harmanli have started. The Bulgarian authorities have announced openly that new fences will be constructed around the camp. It was also announced that the former Transitcenter in Pastrogor will turn into a closed camp. Afghan habitants of the camps are blamed by the authorities that they have started the riot and bigger parts of the Bulgarian media propagated this.
It was stated by the State Agency for Refugees (SAR), that Afghans will be deported back to Afghanistan. For now, they are offered voluntary deportation, even if their cases are not decided, yet. 40 people already signed such a paper. If they do not want to, they are threatened to get imprisoned after they had to go in front of the court. After the first trials against the 18 people who were are arrested in Harmanli for rioting everybody of them (three of them underaged) will remain in custody.
Today, after more than two days of quarantine, at noon a massive riot broke out in Harmanli’s refugee camp, which is located not far way from the Bulgarian-Turkish border. The revolting migrants protested against the closing of the camp and for freedom of movement. Hundreds did not understand why more than 3000 people have to stay inside the camp and are not allowed to go out, while not everybody is ill from deceases. The closing of the camp was already a longer plan of the authorities and an answer on the permanent ongoing protest of right wing parties, neo-nazis and their supporters.
Some small barricades were built up by the protesters, some of them were burning. After a while, a water cannon which had entered the camp, was attacked by several people with stones. Riot police answered to them with batons and some of them were even throwing stones back to the revolting migrants. After a longer while the situation calmed down, as some migrants managed to pacify the crowd. The people continued with their protest peacefully.
After failed negotiations, the riot continued again in the night. It was stated, by Bulgaria’s Interior Ministry chief secretary Georgi Kostov, that more than 200 people from the camp are in custody. Police had entered some buildings and started to use physical violence. Even people who were not part of the riot were attacked. It was reported that the police used rubber bullets and water cannons. At the moment it is still not clear how many people are injured, regarding the lack of communication inside the camp. Already many people claimed that the police had entered their rooms and beaten them, although they did not participate in the riot. Several photos are already available, which are documenting their injuries.
Today, a hungerstrike was launched by more than 200 migrants in the detention Center of Busmantsi. The Afghan and Pakistani people on strike are protesting against the bad circumstances in the facility, hygiene, the bad qualitiy of food and a lack of medical treatment. They are protesting as well against the agressive behaviour of the staff and discrimination of the State Agency for Refugees (SAR), considering the applications of Pakestanian citizens for protection. The discrimination is derived from the extremly delayed registration of their asylum claims form inside detention, which prolongs their detention unnecessary. The detention center works to capacity and is totally overcrowded at the moment.
In February 2016, Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) obtained the story of an asylum seeker who was kicked out of the camp in Ovcha Kupel for allegedly being absent for three days without giving notice. After he got kicked out, he found a restaurant where started to work and live. In the meantime his asylum procedure finished with a negative decision and in addiction, the man lost his job. He went to the camp in Ovcha Kupel to hide, because he did not have any other place to stay. One night, he was found by the migration police which entered to check the camp and took him to Busmantsi. There he got no information, what will happen next to him.
Already in 2012, 2013 and 2014, BMB witnessed several hunger strikes that took place in the two detention centers, which are based in Lyubimets and Busmantsi. Most of the time, they were staged against the conditions in the camps but also against the violence. The police often did not know how to react and answered with additional violence. We conducted proof of misbehavior of the police inside the centers via numerous interviews with refugees who experienced violence. A Syrian refugee, already interviewed in August 2012, told about his times in Busmantsi in 2011:
They really behaved very wicked with us. Without respect, without anything, they have offended us all the time.
In August 2013, BMB interviewed several Syrians in Banya, who were part of a group in the Detention Center of Lyubimets that refused to drink and to eat in Lyubimets, in October 2012, because they couldn’t get any information about the procedure of their asylum application. In addition, another Syrian reported, that eight asylum seekers were beaten up in October 2012, after they started an intervention against the violence of the police towards another Syrian that was beaten from the police around 10pm. They started shouting:
Why are you beating us? We are refugees.
The police did not stop, so the group of Syrians started to make more noise and threatened, that they will break the door to help the victim. After the police stopped with the beating, they heard the voice of people coming up the stairs:
The big chef and 20 police, when they came upstairs, they told everybody to go to his room. They locked the room, they went down they checked the cameras. They saw each and everybody who was shouting, who was hitting the door and everything. They just came back, picked one by one and took them downstairs. They locked them like this, with the hands beside and they started beating them.
Many refugees told BMB also about the existence of a few isolation cells, where they had to stay for days and sometimes weeks. After several talks to authorities and migrants BMB assumed that bringing migrant prisoners to isolation cells in Busmantsi and Lyubimets, is an established punishment practice. Since 2012, the number of detained migrants has been rising. Crossing the border illegally is still a crime, due to the Bulgarian law. BMB calls for its abolition and for a stop of the violence inside the detention centers. Isolation cells and the ’non-information‘-practice have nothing to do with international human rights.