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. 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.

So far, 5305 applications for asylum were submitted in Bulgaria until April 2016. But nearly 3/4 of the procedures are being cancelled at the moment, because the migrants continuously disappear. There are different reasons for that, one could be the fact that  the State Agency for Refugees (SAR) is still not giving the 65 Leva monthly to the registered refugees, but instead of the institution could be strongly criticized of recently throwing a big amount of food away. The quota-system (concerning relocation from other European countries, e.g. Greece) on which Bulgaria agreed, foresees that Bulgaria has to host 1.200 asylum seekers under such regulation. Until now, Bulgaria took four refugees via the relocation system, one of them has already escaped to Western Europe.

Meanwhile a video of the group Voinski Syiuz Levski/BNO Shipka (воински съюз левски – бно шипка) and a news article had emerged, which was done by a German journalist. In the video the interviewed member of the nationalist group confirms again the cooperation with the Bulgarian Border Police, which was already criticized by many human rights organizations. The Bulgarian parliament did not criticize such an agreement, but recently gave its confirmation 1.5 Million Euros more in regarding to protect its borders with technical equipment, especially in the Maritsa (Evros) region.

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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 the Center for Legal Aid – Voice in Bulgaria (CLA), confirmed the report.

[CLA] 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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Bulgaria as an alternative Route?

The complete closing of the humanitarian corridor caused a humanitarian emergency in the Greek village Idomeni. In the recent days Bulgaria’s politicians have expressed their fear, that an alternative humanitarian corridor could emerge via Bulgaria. The Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov warned about such developments and the Interior Minister Rumyana Bachvarova stated that the EU Commission was already asked by Bulgaria for help in order to boost the security at the Greek border. Bulgaria’s Defense Minister Nikolay Nenchev talked about the possibility of building a new fence between Greece and Bulgaria. Until now Nenchev did not see it as an important step, but rather as a ‚last resort‘. He mentioned that the army at the border will only be used in “emergency cases“. In the beginning of March 2016, a drill was held by Bulgarian authorities at the border crossing Kulata-Promachonas, which is located about 125 km away from Idomeni.

The new border fence between Bulgaria and Turkey is not ready, yet. In February 2016, the Bulgarian government decided to spend additional 17 Million Euro on it, so 47 Million Euro were already paid for it. In May 2015, the first stage of the fence (with length of about 33 km), which was build after the (so called) refugee crisis in Bulgaria 2013/14, had problems as it partly collapsed  and the Bulgarian army had to underpin it. Other reports referred about rust and wholes in the fence or people who threw carpets on it to climb over. The period of constructing the small fence took about 10 months and was completed by the end of 2014 in July. The new fence of about 132.6 km, which was announced 12 month ago, is supposed to be thicker and has partly “three rows instead of the existing two“. Nevertheless, at some places such an intend is extremely difficult, because of the Strandzha mountain massif and the natural park with its river and hills, furthermore still 90 km of the border fence in the Burgas region have not been built, yet. By the end of May 2016, 8 km are planned to be finished in the region of Yambol, where the new fence is affiliating the old fence.

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Unaccompanied minors inside Bulgaria’s detention centers / Drills at the border to Greece

The Bulgarian ombudsman, Maya Manolova, announced this week that unaccompanied minors are placed in Bulgaria’s detention centers with other adults, “who are not members of their families or authorized companions“. The announcement was part of a report about the results of evaluating detention facilities and jails in Bulgaria. Already in November 2015 Valeria Ilareva, from the Foundation for Access to Rights (FAR), warned that after the new asylum regime, “detention of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers is permitted“.

Last weekend, drills of the Bulgarian police and army took place at the border-crossing point to Greece near Kulata, which is hard to secure. 400 police staff and 50 soldiers took part, in addition 2 helicopters, a water cannon and amored vehicles were used during the exercise. The authorities deployed also “refugees“, who were throwing stones at the police. For the training, the border crossing Kulata-Promachonas was temporally closed. Two days later, it seemed like nothing has ever happened on the spot and, the situation was very calm and no special police, fence or additional cameras were seen at the border checkpoint.

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Ovcha-Kupel: A place of broken dreams

When Serbia recently started to deport refugees to Bulgaria, some of them stranded in the Reception Center for Asylum Seekers in Sofia/Ovcha Kupel. Jamal Anjuman*, who recently made it through the border to Serbia, but was deported by Serbian border police to the Bulgarian border, stated:

In Serbia we were arrested. We were handcuffed and they brought us back to Bulgaria. We don’t now why. Now we are here and don’t know what to do.

The Reception Center is located in a district, where many industrialized buildings are included. One could find a lot of neo-nazi graffiti and swastikas on the walls of many houses, many of them are already present in the neighborhood since years. Nearly every day, the police is present in front of the center for asylum-seekers and the migrants are getting permanently controlled by them.

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