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.
*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%)