Shots fired at Bulgarian-Turkish border

On the 3rd of October 2022, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee was shot on the Turkish-Bulgarian border, after a group of refugees was push-backed from Bulgaria to Turkey. The injured young man was brought to a Turkish hospital afterwards, where he luckily survived the attack. The report and video of the shot was published today by an investigative team of journalists. Journalists and activists are usually not allowed to enter the border area. In the following month of the incident (on the 7th of November 2022) a policemen was shot dead on the same border. Already in 2015 an Afghan refugee was shot dead by a Bulgarian border police man.

This year the pressure on the Bulgarian-Turkish border is increasing again. According to the Bulgarian authorities, more than 150,000 attempts to enter Bulgaria from Turkey have been made so far this year. In the last months, several policemen and refugees were involved in a couple of deadly traffic accidents.

Bordermonitoring Bulgaria is very concerned about the deadly violence at the Bulgarian-Turkish border, which has to be stopped immediately.

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Report about hospitals in Burgas, which are allegedly full of unclaimed dead bodies of refugees

While discussions emerged in the European parliament and in the European council weather Bulgaria and Romania should join the Schengen Area, the Bulgarian English-language based webpage Novinite reported recently about unclaimed dead bodies of refugees in several hospitals of Burgas. The province Burgas (Oblast Burgas) is bordering Turkey in the South and the Black Sea in the West. In the report Bulgaria’s chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev claimes the identities of the dead bodies cannot be established. And the only forensic doctor in the district, Dr. Galina Mileva, is cited as follows:

There is a huge refugee flow, not only as migrants across the Turkish border, but also Ukrainians. We have many Ukrainians who died here. The relatives of some of them are ready to carry out their funerals here. However, others remain in the morgue, unclaimed.

Meanwhile the flow of refugees continues to and through Bulgaria. On the beginning of October a truck was found with 75 refugees on the Trakia highway, a group of 26 refugees was arrested during a police operation in the Tsaribrodska Street in Sofia and another group of 35 people in the Banishora district. The broadcasting station bTV published a video where several refugees are crossing the fence at the Bulgarian-Turkish border. It is not the first video report of this character.

In the interviews and statements Bordermonitoring Bulgaria conducted in Bulgaria, Serbia, Turkey, Greece and Germany, refugees during the last years refugees are frequently referring to dead bodies in the Bulgarian-Turkish border area. Bordermonitoring Bulgaria is concerned about violent practices in the border region carried out by Bulgarian authorities and asks for immediate safe passages for refugees.

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Bulgaria: Capacity of refugee centers located at the Turkish-Bulgarian border to be fully stretched

Currently the capacities of the two Bulgarian refugee centers next to the Bulgarian-Turkish border Pastrogor and Lyubimets are overcrowded. The closed refugee center of Lyubimets which is operated by the Ministry of Interior is planned to be exceeded by 1,200 new places, consisting of containers that will be built up in the yard of the prison. Bulgaria is still considered a transit country for people on the move, fleeing form their country of origin. Pastrogor, which is operated by the State Agency of Refugees, has a capacity of 300 people, where currently live more than 400. It functions as an open center, but has the possibility to be transformed into a closed one. Several media outlets reported also about tensions among the working staff, because of the current conditions in the center.

This year there had been constantly traffic accidents where refugees had been involved. In February, Bulgarian police found 61 Afghan refugees in a truck, which had an accident. Already in April, two Afghan refugees died in an accident involving a Bulgarian army vehicle. Two weeks ago, a bus carrying 30 people with Afghan citizenship crashed into a tree in the western Bulgarian town of Godech near the Serbian border and caught fire. The driver died in the accident. Then, last week, a bus carrying 47 Syrian refugees was pursued by police for 25 kilometers in the Burgas region, causing a traffic accident. According to media reports, the 15-year-old Syrian driver of the bus did not stop when a police car got in his way and then collided with it. The accident, in which two police officers died, led to major political discussions.

Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev spoke publicly of a „declaration of war by the trafficking gangs“ and did assume that Bulgarian border officials could be involved in the illegal transit of refugees. Also he said, that the border fence could be easily overclimbed with a ladder, which was also mentiones by Chief Commissioner Stanimir Stanev. He announced that he would have all refugee accommodation checked in the next few days, which was carried out e.g. in Sofia and told the Bulgarian National Radio that almost 1,000 migrants are currently being stopped every day. From the 27th of August 2022, the army is increasing its protection at the state border of Bulgaria. This will lead probably to a new escalation of violence in the border area. Already in May 2022 the organization Human Rights Watch had published a report about the ongoing violence and push backs at the Bulgarian border. In October 2022 the organization Info Park, which is located in Serbia, published a post to address violent cases and push-backs within the Bulgarian border area.

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Two refugees died in a Bulgarian military car

Due to an accident, two Afghan refugees died in Bulgaria’s Border region in a truck of the Bulgarian army on the way from the border town Rezovo to Gramatikovo. Nine other refugees and two Bulgarian servicemen were injured in the incident. Before the refugees had crossed the border from Turkey to Bulgaria. It is not clear why the Bulgarian army had transported the migrants, but in the last months there were several reports about army activity in the border region. Crashes were refugees are involved happen on a regular basis. Another accident happened in February 2022, where the Bulgarian border police found an abandoned truck, loaded with 61 Afghan refugees.

After Russia’s attempted invasion of Ukraine, the number of refugees in Bulgaria, like in many other countries, increased. The Bulgarian government arranged for the Ukrainian refugees to be accommodated in accommodations that were specially created for this purpose. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have fled to Bulgaria, but some of them have not stayed in the country or have not yet been registered, yet. The registration process for Ukrainians to get temporally protection will last until the 15th of April. So far 5,710 registration cards were issued, while only in the Burgas region 15,000 Ukrainian citizens were registered at different addresses. Ukrainians can register at special registration points in the country.

While the refugees of Ukraine had no troubles of being welcomed in Bulgaria, others are still being push backed or suffer from other problems. From the beginning of the year to the end of March 2022, Bulgarian’s border police has thwarted 16,500 attempts to cross the Bulgarian-Turkish border. In March 2022, Bulgaria’s government replaced Petya Purvanova as head of the State Agency for Refugees with Mariana Tosheva, who was formerly working for the Bulgarian Red Cross. According to a government statement, the replacement took place due to “unsatisfactory performance“.

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New Bulgarian government did not lead to positive changes for asylum seekers, so far

In November 2021 the parliament was be elected for the third time in 2021. Forming a government had failed twice previously, and an interim prime minister was put into office afterwards. The former government is embroiled in scandals and human rights violations. In the third election – which was by the same time accompanied by the presidential elections – a broad coalition government was appointed by the president Rumen Radev. During the presidential elections, the former president Radev was re-elected for another five years term. During his election campaign he made a general stand against refugees and their rights to access the territory and to seek asylum in Bulgaria.

For 2021 the the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) reported 2,513 alleged pushback incidents which affected a total of 44,988 individuals. In total 19,999 people asked for international protection in Bulgaria in 2021, which is an increase of 212% of asylum seekers to 2021, where it was only 3,525%. All first time applicants had to stay mandatorily 10 days in quarantine, due to the Covid-19 regulation, without any exclusion. During their quarantine time, the people are not able to receive legal advice or assistance to apply for asylum and in general the quarantine period is not included into the detention duration.

In 2021 the recognition rate was 61% at first instance. But the recognition rate of non-Syrian applicants remained below 8%. Turkish and Afghan nationals had very low recognition rates, (10% for Afghan nationals and 8% for Turkish nationals), which were described as unfair and discriminatory by the BHC. Since 2016, the biggest group of asylum seekers in Bulgaria are Afghan refugees. Bei the end of the year their recognition rates got a bit better, with the Taliban regaining power in Afghanistan, but in total the rejection rate was still 90%.

The situation in the reception centers of the State Ageny for Refugees is still very critical (except of Vrazhdebna). The infrastructure does often not provide the most basic services, such as hygiene or security. There is still a lack of interpreters and social workers in the centers. Furthermore in the whole year of 2021, only seven status holders and two asylum seekers were officially employed.

Already in 2020, a new and problematic law was introduced. It allows the termination or revocation of an international protection paper, if the status holder fails to renew expired Bulgarian identity documents within thirty days. Since then, a total of 4,364 status holders have been affected by the unjustified termination of international protection.

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Number of refugees in detention is increasing

In September 2021 a total of 1,626, so called, third-country nationals were detained in Bulgaria, according published statistics from the Ministry of Interior. 154 people were detained at the entrance to the external state border of Bulgaria and 128 people at the exit while a number of 1,344 was detained in the interior of the country. By the end of September 2021 the number of detainees was 999. Most of the detained people are of Afghan nationality. Since many years the route through Bulgaria is well known for Afghan nationals, but Bulgaria did not generally suspend the deportation to Afghanistan.

Detention Center in Lyubimets 2018

Within the period of January-September 2021, a total of 6,560 „third-country nationals“ was detained. The total capacity of the detention centers for migrants in Bulgaria is 1060 places, namely Lyubimets (300+360 places in containers) und Busmantsi (400 places) The, so called,  transit centre in Pastrogor (360 places) at the Bulgarian-Turkish border near Lyubimets can be used as a closed facility, as well, if needed. necessary.

By the end of October 2021, a delegation from the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) carried out its visit to Bulgaria (24- 30 October). The SPT said that it is „particularly concerned about child migrants held in detention. Some of them are unaccompanied by their parents, they are the most vulnerable group and live under very difficult conditions.“ The delegation stressed out that a high number of asylum seekers is detained in Bulgaria and that they „should be promptly and fully informed“ about what is happening to them. The whole report is still not published. Another report published by, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), the end of June 2021 mentioned already similar practices.

Meanwhile the push-backs seem to go on. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) had “recorded 1,064 indirect pushbacks (preventing individuals from crossing into Bulgaria) and 323 direct pushbacks (returns from inside the territory) over the first eight months of 2021, affecting 13,363 people“. On October the 2nd, the head of the Bulgarian border police, Ivan Stojanow, told the Bulgarian television broadcaster BTV that around 20,000 people had been „prevented“ from crossing the Bulgarian-Turkish border since the beginning of the year.

In its report for October 2021 the organization Borderviolence Monitoring monitored several Push-Backs of the Bulgarian border police. By the beginning of November a number of 40 military vehicles and 350 military units were sent to the border to repair the fence and to carry out joint patrols with the Bulgarian police.

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Bulgaria: Disregarding the principle of non-refoulement and the (non-existing) right for asylum

By the end of August 2021 the Minister of Interior (MoI) Boyko Rashkov, from the caretaker government, said there was a significant increase of the refugee influx (+17%). Last week dozens of Afghan refugees were found in an old hunting farm in Ihtiman. The week before more than 40 refugees were detained at several places in Sofia. One week later, on the 23rd of August, 20 refugees were found during a routine check in Sofia’s Obelya district in a truck. As of the published statistics by the MoI from the 31.07.2021, 81% (859 people) of the capacity of the two existing detention centers Busmantsi and Lyubimets was occupied, 388 of the detained people were from Afghanistan.

In the last two days of August, nearly 500 people were stopped at the external borders of Bulgaria (268 attempts on the Bulgarian-Turkish border, 212 – on the Bulgarian-Greek border). The Border Police Headquarter in Elhovo stated that every day the Bulgarian Border Police sends between 100 and 200 „illegal immigrants“ back to Turkey. Many of them are people with Afghan origin. So far Afghan nationals faced a 99% rejection rate in Bulgaria, although “Afghanistan has been the top country of origin in Bulgaria for five consecutive years since 2016“. Diana Daskalova, head attorney at Center for Legal Aid – Voice in Bulgaria, stated:

During recent years, in spite of the fact that Afghan asylum seekers were among the main portion of people seeking protection in Bulgaria, their recognition was indeed lower in comparison to average rates in other EU member states. At the same time returns to Afghanistan have been leading in numbers.

Recently, Bulgaria’s caretaker Premier Stefan Yanev mentioned, during an inspection of the border near the town of Malko Tarnovo, that the fence on the Turkish-Bulgarian border needs repair. Meanwhile the rhetoric of many Bulgarian politicians is about how to stop the, so called, ‚migrant wave‘ from Afghanistan. On the 26th of August 2021, Rashkov announced, that Bulgaria will send hundreds of soldiers to the border to Greece and Turkey. It is not really clear what should be their role there, besides to assist the Bulgarian borderpolice at the external borders. Very likely there is a big chance of push-backs existing for the fleeing people from Afghanistan, since the military is not familiar with humanitarian trainings. In the night of the 1st of September, 200 people were “intercepted“ at the border, Rashkov told the very next day in the National Assembly.

Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) is worried about Bulgaria’s military at the border and the possible resulting of disregarding the principle of non-refoulement for people who fled from the horrible situation in Afghanistan and who seek protection in the European Union. Furthermore Bulgaria should overthink and put an end to the discriminatory determination concerning the people from Afghanistan.

Screenshot website State Agency for Refugees (SAR)
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Bulgarian Ministry of Interior states that „migrant pressure“ is increasing

The current Bulgarian caretaker Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov told in the Bulgarian parliament that the „migration pressure“ on the country is increasing. The head of the Ministry of Interior (MoI) stated, that since the start of 2021, 17,621 third-country citizens have tried to enter Bulgaria ‚illegally‘. During this period, 590 illegal migrants were caught by Bulgarian authorities in Bulgaria and 16,900 were returned to neighbouring countries. The minister stated that the current border crossings are taking place in the Edirne region, from Turkey and Northern-Greece.

In the last months the official numbers raised significantly: In May 2021, there were 2,500 attempts for illegal crossing into Bulgaria and 113 people were caught after crossing the border. In June 2021, there were 4,504 registered attempts and 61 people were caught caught. In July 2021 the numbers were 5% less, probably due to the hot temperature, but the Border Violence Monitoring network reported also about several push-backs in the same month (e.g. in Vaysal, Golyam Dervent/Küçünlü and Elhovo/Küçünlü). The rise of the numbers comes right after the end of the 20-year NATO-Mission in Afghanistan and the recent increase of Afghan refugees in Turkey.

Rashkov said that „police operations“ are held on the border with Greece and Turkey „to prevent illegal crossings“. The MoI staff is sent to the border with all-terrain vehicles from other parts of the country to help the border police. Furthermore, police patrols are positioned „on key road junctions and in areas close to the border with Greece and Turkey“. Already in June 2021, the European Commissioner for Internal Affairs and Migration, Ylva Johansson, visited Serbia, to launch the Frontex-Serbia Status Agreement „Joint Operation Serbia – Land 2021“ and deploy 44 Frontex police officers at the Serbian-Bulgarian border.

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European Court of Human Rights rules that Bulgaria’s pushback practice violates human rights

The European Court Of Human Rights (ECtHR) decided on the 20th of July that Bulgaria’s pushback practice violates human rights. The Hand-over of a persecuted Turkish journalist back to Turkey was unlawful. The case was handed in by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) A detailed summary of the reports on push-backs from Bulgaria, also mentioned in the press release by the ECCHR, can be found on our website.

In the case D v. Bulgaria, the ECtHR unanimously found that the applicant, a Turkish journalist, was forcibly returned to Turkey, after beeing caught at the Romanian-Bulgarian border with eight other refugees from Turkey and Syria. „The Bulgarian authorities had failed to carry out an assessment of the risk he faced there, and deprived him of the possibility to challenge his removal, breaching articles 3 and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights“, the Court found.

Meanwhile the reports about Push-Backs from Bulgaria go on. In the AIDA 2020 report published by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), Push-backs affected more than 15,000 individuals in 2020 according to statistics collected by the national border monitoring network. In a report from March 2021, done by the Dutch VPRO-Program Frontline, 75-90 mostly Afghan people were involved in a Push-Back from Bulgaria to Greece. The group entered Greece on on May 29th near the village of Dikea at the Greek-Turkish-Bulgarian border.

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Push-Backs and Pull-Backs: Bulgaria and Turkey continue to collaborate closely as ‚gatekeepers‘ of the EU

Bodermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) mentioned in its new report from June 2020 the ongoing usage of Push Backs at the external borders of Bulgaria. The tactics of the Bulgarian Border Police contain dogs, pepper spray, beating and robbing and are mentioned frequently by numerous other organizations. Also many children are involved into these cases, as the organization Save the children wrote in one of their latest reports.

Since 2016, the Bulgarian authorities additionally work more closely together with the Turkish authorities. This leads to a “win-win“ situation for both sides. With this strategy the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) emphasized that the Bulgarian authorities can “avoid any responsibility under the Dublin Regulation or readmission arrangements“. Furthermore ‚their side‘ of the border stays more calm. On the other hand the Turkish government can achieve to catch political dissidents by carrying out pull backs. As a side note it is important here to mention that from 2014-2019 only one Turkish citizen got asylum in Bulgaria.

Video footage of Bulgarian Border Police (published 2018)

As of 2017 a wall of 235 km length was completed at the Turkish-Bulgarian border. Besides this, the Border Police Agency FRONTEX – currently under investigation by EU’s anti-fraud watchdog OLAF, because of allegations of harassment, misconduct and migrant Push-Backsis also active in Bulgaria and works partly together with the Bulgarian Border Police. Currently, the number of people which are caught by the Bulgarian authorities is decreasing. But that does not mean that people do not try to make their way through Bulgaria or other countries into the European Union.

In the first nine months of 2019, Turkish authorities prevented 90,000 individuals to enter the borders of Greece and Bulgaria. The BHC and the UNHCR emphasized in one of their new reports – published together with the Ministry of Interior – that in 2019 the Bulgarian MoI prevented 6,470 attempted border crossings and issued 4,243 entry refusals (non-admissions) at the Bulgarian-Turkish border. In the same year 337 alleged Pushs-Back-Incidents were registered which affected 5,640 individuals.

In May 2020, the organization Josoor published a report about several Push Backs from Bulgaria to Turkey. In December 2020, the same organization published another report of a Tunisian man, who was chain-push-backed from Bulgaria to Greece and from Greece to Turkey. The report describes that the man told he was firstly arrested in Bulgaria by police officers who took all his belongings, including his phone, all his money and clothes. He remembered that some of them spoke in native German to him. Another similar case, were more people were involved, was already published by the Borderviolence Monitoring Network in October 2020.

By the end of the year the Turkish State News Agency Anadolu published two reports about push-backs done by the Bulgarian border police. The first one is from the 10th of December 2020, in which 14 people were involved. The second one describes an involvement of 8 people and is from the 24th of December 2020. Meanwhile the detention of refugees, carried out by the Bulgarian border police, takes furthermore place.

Turkish State Media frequently reports also about Pull-Backs. For example at the 28th of December 2020, when twenty-eight asylum seekers were held by Turkish Gendarmerie forces in the province of Kırklareli. In the new year the Anadolu Agency already published two notes about Pull-Backs: The first note is from the 4th of January, where fourteen irregular refugees were held by Turkish Gendarmerie forces in the province of Kırklareli, near the Dereköy Border Gate and Kofçaz district. The second one is from the 13th of January 2021 where at least 20 asylum seekers were held in Kirklareli and Erzincan.

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