The Black Hole of EU-Asylum

European Commission, State Agency for Refugees and Ministry of Interior keep silent regarding a leaked letter addressing the situation of Asylum Seekers in Bulgaria

In November 2017, a leaked document from 6th July circulated in the media. The document, written by Laurent Muschel Director of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs, addresses problems with the asylum policy of Bulgaria. His letter urges the State Agency for Refugees and the Ministry of Interior to act on several grave and disturbing tendencies that have been consistently criticised by stakeholders, NGOs, and experts.

Mr Muschel lists a number of problems with the current conditions for asylum seekers and refugees in Bulgaria, such as: inadequate legal assistance, health and social services for asylum seekers and refugees, including vulnerable groups and unaccompanied minors; shortage of trained staff in the centers for detention and accommodation of asylum seekers that can provide assistance to vulnerable groups and unaccompanied minors; shortage of trained interpreters and reports of inferior quality of interpretation services; inferior living conditions at the accommodation centers; consistent high rate of rejections of asylum seekers from Afghanistan, significantly higher than the EU average, which raises concerns of discrimination and inadequate or insufficient evaluation of their applications; unclear national integration strategy that lacks detail and evidence of implementation.

As of yet, the European Commission (EC), the Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees (SAR) and the Ministry of Interior (MoI) have not commented on the document. In the letter, the EC describes its support for the Bulgarian asylum and refugee policy institutions as “significant amounts of EU funding while operational support is being provided by the EU Asylum Agency (EASO)“. EASO, however, discontinued its presence in Bulgaria at the end of October 2017 without any final report on the progress in the Bulgarian asylum system and without commenting on the leaked document.

Detention Center of Busmantsi / Sofia

Throughout 2016 MoI was responsible for 10,914 people, who were placed in “pre-removal detention“ upon their arrival*1. The reasons for detention, which lasts for days, weeks, and often months, remain unclear and somehow arbitrary. Last year, Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) learnt from several interviews with asylum seekers who have been detained in Busmantsi (a detention center located in the outskirts of Sofia) that they were not informed of the reasons for their detention or its length. BMB has also registered cases of detention of women and minors. In 2016 the Bulgarian Ombudsman, Maya Manolova, revealed that unacompanied minors have also been detained.  The Bulgarian Helsinki Commitee “identified 1,821 unaccompanied children detained in the national immigration detention centres“. The Bulgarian  Foundation for Access to Rights (FAR) found out the following in 2016:

According to the answer received as at 18 July 2016 the numbers were as follows: there were 409 detained foreign nationals in the Sofia Detention Centre of whom 337 had applied for asylum and 222 in the Lyubimets Detention Centre of whom 53 had applied for asylum. This shows that the authorities are breaking the law and fail to comply with the requirement stipulated in Article 20(2) of the Regulation on Immigrant Detention Centres to release the foreign nationals who have submitted a first application for international protection.

Additionally, since 1st January 2016, during the period of assessment of their application asylum seekers can be placed  in closed reception facilities under the jurisdiction of the State Agency for Refugees (SAR). In the year of 2016, 400 people had to stay in “Asylum Detention“ for reasons of “protection of national security or public order“. At present, the only official closed facility managed by SAR is located within the detention center in Busmantsi and has a capacity of 60 people. In October 2017, 14 out of the 17 asylum seekers detained in the facility were Afghans*2, which corroborates reports of discriminatory treatment of this group.

BMB is alarmed by the systematic practice of arresting asylum seekers in Bulgaria. More than half of the 19,418 asylum seekers in 2016 have been arrested. The situation is especially dire for Dublin returnees, who can apply for  “just  one reopening and within a time-limit of 6 months since the procedure has been discontinued“. Many asylum seekers are especially vulnerable to arrest, they suffer grave consequences, including additional trauma from their detention in jail or their experiences during their flight. In light of this criticism and the apparent awareness of EU about the problems in the Bulgarian asylum system, Dublin deportations to Bulgaria remain even more problematic.

*1 The numbers are quoted from the report of  Center for Legal Aid – Voice in Bulgaria “Who gets detained? Increasing the transparency and accountability of Bulgaria’s detention practices of asylum seekers and migrants” from 2016.
*2 In its letter, the EU Commission was also concerned about the recognition rate of Afghan asylum seekers in BG for international protection status in 2016 (2,5%), which was a lot lower than the average of other EU countries (65%)
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Traces of migration flow at the Bulgarian-Turkish border

Yesterday, on the 20th of October 2017 the Defence Minister of Bulgaria Krassimir Karakachanov stated that ladders had been used to climb the fence at the Bulgarian-Turkish border. On the same day the minister said to BGNews that the fence is 100% finished and has to be “upgraded with relevant sensors [and] cameras“. Days before, photos were circulating in the Bulgarian media showing a large hole underneath the fence, which were leading to a bigger discussion in the Bulgarian parliament and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) has called for the resignation of the Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov. In 2016, the Bulgarian parliament voted for using the army at the Bulgarian borders to guard it, but since then it was used only partly.

Since weeks the migration flow at the Turkish-Bulgarian border is increasing again. The UNHCR came out with a report in August 2017 which added together the numbers of interceptions at the Turkish-Greek and the Turkish-Bulgarian land borders from January-August 2017 and mentioned a quantity of 17,067 people. Only in August 2017 a number of 464 was intercepted at the Bulgarian-Turkish border by Turkish land forces. In September and October 2017 Turkish authorities reported about several attempts of crossing the Bulgarian border, which were reported broadly in the Turkish media. As opposed to this a number of 586 intercepted people was mentioned in the last report of the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior for September 2017.

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Bulgaria restricts Freedom of Movement for asylum seekers

On the 21st of September 2017 the Bulgarian government released a regulation about the restriction of the freedom of movement for registered asylum seekers in Bulgaria. The imposed limits are defined in perimeters for the asylum seekers who are registered in the refugee centers of Sofia (Voenna Rampa, Vrazhdebna, Ovcha Kupel), Harmanli, Pastrogor and Banya. Another rule was already approved one year ago to restrict the movement of asylum seekers within the open centers of the State Agency for Refugees (SAR).

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Is a new deadly route being (re-)established in the Black Sea?

The escape route from Turkey via the black sea was rarely used in 2013 and 2014 before the so called refugee crisis in Europe reached its peak. Since the recent crackdown on the Aegean Sea route in the last months, more and more people are again trying to travel from Turkey via the Black Sea to reach Bulgaria or Romania. Since the beginning of 2017, already 649 migrants were caught, while they tried to cross via Black Sea. In addition, the case of 12 migrants, locked on a merchant vessel traveling back and forth between Istanbul and Odessa came to light.

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10 people die on Bulgaria’s road because of the European border regime

On Sunday, the 4th of June a van crashed into a tree on the Trakia motorway between Plovdiv and Sofia, near the town of Pazardzhik. The result of this road crash are 9 dead people from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria plus the 16-year old Bulgarian teenager, who drove the car without a driving license. Until today, two migrants are still in critical condition. Additionally four other migrants have to stay in hospital. The border police  Commissioner Svetlan Kichikov stated that, the border police registered “2054 illegal attempts to cross the border“ in 2017 so far.

Every year migrants are dying in Bulgaria, because they seek for security and shelter in the EU. Many are risking their lives, which are already in danger in their home countries. The smuggling business in Bulgaria is flourishing, this year already 53 people were arrested for transporting people ‚illegally‘. Some of them are even accused of trafficking people via the airport of Sofia.

The reason (among others) why people are still being ’smuggled‘ through Bulgaria is the official closing of the, so called, humanitarian corridor (also known as „balkan-route“) in March 2016, which was forced by the governments of several European countries. Without a legal corridor and being denied safe traveling such provoked ‚accidents‘ will happen again and again.

Photo credit: Bulgarian National Television (BNT)

Update: The UNHCR came out with a report in August which added together the numbers of interceptions at the Turkish-Greek and the Turkish-Bulgarian land borders from January-August 2017 and mentioned a quantity of 17,067 people. Only in August a number of 464 was intercepted at the Bulgarian-Turkish border by Turkish land forces.

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Only 13 refugees in Bulgaria receive social assistance from the state

In March 2017, it came out to be known that only 13 refugees in Bulgaria receive social money as a social help from the Bulgarian state, because of their disabilities. Apart from that, no other refugee in Bulgaria gets cash in some form of subsistence. The 65 Leva (33EUR)  a month were already taken away in 2015, two years ago.

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A huge number of migrants leave Bulgaria

Recently, the State Agency for Refugee (SAR) and the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior (MoI) stated in a report that already thousands of people had left Bulgaria, this year. In January 2017, more than 2210 migrants had already left the country and in February 903 people were reported to be ‚disappeared‘. In March more than 400 people left Bulgaria. By the end of February, Bulgarian authorities stopped 1022 migrants at the Bulgarian-Serbian border. For 2016, the SAR granted a lot less the refugee status for asylum seekers than 2015. Nevertheless, the applications for asylum in 2016 were only 5% less than 2016. Until the end of January 2017, the SAR recorded 421 new asylum applications.

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Refugee family with a status has to leave Belene

Some days ago, a Syrian family, who already received a status, was welcomed by the Catholic church in Belene in the north of Bulgaria. But this was a problem for Krasimir Todorov, a municipal councilor, who organized some locals to protest against the family and the priest Paolo Cortesi, who helped the family.

Last year, the Syrian family came originally via Greece within the relocation sheme and was coordinated from the State Agency for Refugees in Bulgaria (SAR) to the Catholic community of Belene. Now the family has to leave again, because of the tensions in the city of Belene. Fr. Cortesi announced, the church is going to stop its charity-activity in the town.

As of today, 07.03.2017,

every [charity] activities of the church are on hold. If you need anything contact the mayor of Belene whose duties are to take care of the citizens in need.

Father Paolo Cortesi

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Mayor of Elin Pelin tells Syrian family with humanitarian status to leave

The mayor, Ivaylo Simeonov, of the Bulgarian town of Elin Pelin has told a Syrian family with a humanitarian status (for Bulgaria) to leave and is refusing to issue them ID documents. The Syrian family, who has arrived with their six years old sun in the country, stated that leaving the town is no option, because the same problems would occur somewhere else. The eldest son of the family, who already lived and worked three years in Bulgaria, had organized the accommodation in Elin Pelin. In the following days Bulgarian media echoed xenophobic, racist and anti-humanitarian statements from different persons, without opposing it.

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Human Rights are still negotiable in Bulgaria

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.

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