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: At least two migrants die in the part of Danube, which bounds Bulgaria and Romania

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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Breaking News: Man dies after push-back from Bulgaria

Several Turkish speaking news sites (citing an article of a journalist from the Anadolou Agency) were reporting about a new victim of the European Border Regime. The 28 year old Iranian Reza Hassani was missing for about 18 days. He was found dead in the jungles of Karacadağ. It was reported to Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) from another source that he was beaten up together with a friend and pushed back „by Bulgarians into Turkey“.  After the push-back he was rarely able to move and got stuck in the middle of nowhere without a phone or food. The police showed a photo of Reza Hassani’s dead corpse to his friend and told him that they will transport the body to the forensics-center in Istanbul.

It is still not clear if the push-back was done by Bulgarian border police or by members of one of the violent and nationalist voluntary groups. In the last weeks, it was reported by several international media that Tatjana Festerling, a former leading person of the German PEGIDA movement, and her colleague Edwin Wagensveld from the Netherlands showed solidarity with these groups. Some of these “voluntary“ groups hold connections to criminal organizations or are part of them. They are practicing physical violence and intimidation that produce strong permanent injuries and result sometimes even in push-backs to Turkey.


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Bulgaria responds with push-backs to the increasing amount of asylum-seekers

In the last days there were reports appearing concerning several groups of people who managed to pass from Greece to Bulgaria. It was furthermore reported by the news agency Novinite that 53 migrants were quickly sent back by the Bulgarian authorities to Greece. They were caught in Kulata. Another group of 34, were caught in a freight train on the route from Greece to Bulgaria. A next report of Novinite claims, that at one day only in 24 hours another 215 migrants were prevented to enter Bulgaria – 62 tried to cross at Novo Selo (from Greece to Bulgaria), 155 tried to cross from Turkey to Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian Ministry of Interior (MoI) announced later on in their public statistics, that altogether 360 people were caught in the last week at the Bulgarian borders – 169 at the border to Turkey, 152 at the border to Serbia and 39 in the country itself. 287 migrants left the refugee camps in a week, 281 of them were with no status. After further statistics, 250 migrants where caught in total, while they tried to cross from Greece to Bulgaria, since the beginning of the year.

Already on the 13th, 14th and 15th of May 2016, Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) interviewed several refugees in Belgrade about their experiences in Bulgaria. In the following, we document some of this testimonies :

When we passed the border from Turkey to Bulgaria, we were arrested from the Bulgarian border police. We were a group of 20 people, also a family was part [of the group]. When the police arrested us, they firs checked our documents and then they took everything, like for example money. I had 200 Euro […] The Bulgarian police took 200 Euro from me and a Galaxy S4 mobile. And everything what I had in my backpack, like trousers, T-Shirts, a jacket, they emptied out. […] We were carrying only our underwear and were kicked. […]  Afterwards they set the dogs on us, but they did not bite us. We sat in front of the dogs and the dogs did not move (Jamal, 32 years, Afghanistan 1)

Later, the whole group was pushed-back by Bulgarian border police. BMB was told about another group of 18 people, that was beaten up by the Bulgarian border police and got as well pushed-back when they crossed the Turkish-Bulgarian border.

They [the border police] asked us from where we are coming and suddenly they hit us. Afterwards they hit us, they searched our pockets. I had 1200 Euro in my pocket stored to continue my journey later. Later they took my money and my two mobile phones. When I said, please give me at least one mobile phone back, four police men took me on the side and started to hit me (Nargis, 36 years, Pakistan).

The third group got in contact with the Bulgarian border police when they already had arrived in Sofia. The police arrested the people and brought them to a police station. There they had to stay for three days. Later they were brought to Busmantsi:

We were 22 people and wanted to pass the border from Bulgaria to Turkey. Six days we walked in the rain, we crossed mountains, rivers, mud…in the jungle. We slept during the day because of the monitoring cameras […] In Sofia we waited at a secure spot for a car, that could bring us to Serbia. But there was a police raid taking place. […] When the police entered the room, they started to beat people. Some started to run, some remained seating. They have beaten up all people with sticks and pulled and pushed them into a car (Samir, 21 years, Afghanistan).

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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. Since this protocol was never released, 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.


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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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