Harmanli: The days after the riot

It was reported that after the riots, in the night, around 9 p.m. the police stormed into the three buildings, which are inhabited by asylum seekers predominantly from Afghanistan. They have beaten severely all men and teenage boys for two hours and broke doors, windows and other things. A 15 year old Afghani boy with a broken skull is in a very critical condition and a medically induced coma. He was already part of an escort accompanied by policemen, who tried to send him to the closed camp in Elhovo. After it was recognized, that he has serious problems, the teenager was first treated in a hospital in Yambol and afterwards transported to the the hospital in Stara Zagora. There an emergency operation was carried out.

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.

Meanwhile there were statements made by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) and the UNHCR: The UNHCR spokesman urged, that asylum seekers should not be deported on national security grounds or because of a protest. The BHC has called for an investigation of the events in the camp. Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) is sharing these two opinions. All closed centers and open centers are still overcrowded. As long as the conditions in the country are as bad as in Harmanli and elsewhere, Bulgaria will remain a Transit Country for migrants.

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The provoked riot in Harmanli’s refugee camp

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 custodyPolice 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.

Update: More and more photos appeared, showing injured migrants. Other sources reported on 400 people, who were taken already in custody by the police and 60 army forces, which will be deployed inside the camp.

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Breaking News: 18 year old Afghan found dead near Bulgarian-Serbian border

A corpse of a 18-year-old Afghan national, was found in Vidin’s province in the village of Kosovo, which is located one kilometer from the border to Serbia. Most likely the man wanted to cross to from Bulgaria to Serbia. The body was found in an abandoned room of a pumping station and was only slightly dressed. It could be assumed that the man died because of starvation and frostbite. Still many people try to cross from Bulgaria to Serbia. Only on one day 41 people were caught by the Bulgarian border police.

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Harmanli’s refugee camp under Quarantine

Tomorrow, the 22rd of November 2016, the camp in Harmanli will be functioning as a closed refugee camp. While the Deputy Minister of Health Vanio Sharkov announced the closing as a temporally one, after a meeting of the chairwoman of the State Agency for Refugees (SAR), Petia Parvanova and Chief State Health Inspector Angel Kanchev, but did not say how long it would take. After several protests of inhabitants of the city, right wing groups and parties, who stated that they are worried about a possible infection, the authorities bow to their pressure. The whole refugee center will be put under quarantine, although not everybody in the camp is ill.

Volunteers criticize that the Ministry of Health was informed already two month ago about the problem of scabies and fleas in the camp. At the moment there is a lack of hot water, heating, sheets and hygiene products in the camp. Now, more than 3000 people live in Harmanli’s refugee camp, some of them even sleep on the floor without mattresses. Already on October 24, there was a protest staged by migrants in the camp about its conditions. Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) calls the SAR and the Ministry of Health to fulfill its job and take care on the hygiene and general maintenance of the inhabitants, who are living in the camp.

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Hunger Strike in Busmantsi’s Detention Center

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.

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No hope, no information: The Detention of Migrants in Bulgaria

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.

Other people BMB spoke to, who where deported back to Bulgaria due to the Dublin regulation, also spent days and weeks in Busmantsi. There they were given no information about what will happen to them. Similar experiences were recently shared in a report by the Center for Legal Aid (CLA). In October 2016, the Foundation for access to Rights (FAR), came up with a new project and a remarkable report about detained immigrants in Bulgaria.

In July 2016, a demonstration took place in front of the detention camp in Busmantsi. It addressed the psychical and physical violence and the fact that people are being held there, because they crossed the border illegally or did not have a legal status. The protest was responded from the prisoners by chanting slogans. Later on, a prisoner told BMB he was not allowed to go on the toilet. Others told about the ’non-information‘ strategy of the Bulgarian authorities and their desperation. The practice of waiting in detention centers, behind bars for months, until migrants are brought to an open camp, exists until today. It is even used for unaccompanied minors and families, who have to spend time in the closed camps.

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 the year 2013, in July, 30 people organized a protest against the circumstances in Busmantsi. They went on a hunger strike. In September 2013, 50 people from Syria declared a hunger strike. Numerous protests and strikes occurred in the detention center in Lyubimets. The biggest incident in 2013 was a hunger strike in November. Hundreds of refugees participated and the strike turned into a revolt, several refugees and as well police men were injured.

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.

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Bulgaria’s State Agency for Refugees is registering more asylum seekers

In September 2016, the State Agency for Refugees (SAR) published that it registered 2,776 people asylum seekers during August, 1,543 asylum seekers more than it registered in July. From January the 1st until August the 31st, the SAR granted refugee status to 376 people and 302 got humanitarian status, 597 people were refused. Until the end of August, 11,952 people were registered by the SAR to have sought ‚protection‘ in Bulgaria in 2016.

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Breaking News: Five migrants die in the part of Danube, which bounds Bulgaria and Romania

At first, the Bulgarian police found two bodies in the near of the village Archar (1). The dead people are belonging to a group that tried to cross the Danube with two boats from Bulgaria to Romania, on the 8th of September 2016. One boat capsized and its passengers fell into the water. The police is still searching for more dead bodies. After four migrants from Iraq were arrested on the Bulgarian island of Dobrina, the Bulgarian police found another dead body in the Danube, 40 km away of Archar. The Director of the Regional Directorate Border Police, Dimitar Chorbadzhiev, stated that another four people are still missing. Yet, it is not clear if the third dead person is belonging to the group of migrants. On the 14th of September, another dead body was found.

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Bulgaria’s government approved changes for a restricted movement regime

Last week, changes were approved by the Bulgarian government to the statute of the national refugee agency of Bulgaria. Basically, the changes will restrict the movement of asylum seekers in the open centers of the State Agency for Refugees (SAR) who had broke the „rules“. They will have to stay in detention spaces that are installed within the ‚open camps‘. Another change, which was approved, was the implementation of limited public areas for asylum seekers in Bulgaria. In fact this is a residential obligation which e.g. could span special areas from the open camps to the city or in the space of the municipality. People who are being caught outside the allowed areas, will be sent to the closed space within the ‚open centers‘.

New closed area with separated gate within Harmanli camp (Foto: Giovanni Piazzese)

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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.

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