More than 100 refugees pulled back from the Turkish-Bulgarian Border

Today on the the 24th of May 2023, more than 100 members of the religious minority, the Ahmadi Religion of Peace and Light, gathered at the Turkish-Bulgarian border. The group, including women, children and old people, asked there to cross the border to apply for asylum on the Bulgarian side. Turkish authorities did not led them pass and brutally pulled them back with batons, also gun shots were fired.

The Kapakule border crossing was closed for two hours, the group was arrested and their belongings were taken away. The arrested people are currently in danger of deportation. The Sofia Globe wrote that the arrested members of the group were from the United Kingdom, Thailand, Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Algeria, Jordan and Turkey. Several people got injured during the incident, as one could e.g. see in a video, which was published by Ahmadi Religion of Peace and Light.

In a letter, which was signed by Bulgarian and other international humanitarian organizations, and sent to FRONTEX as well as the Bulgarian Border police one day before, the situation of the group and the planned border crossing attempt was described and announced. In the letter the group mentioned, that even before it wrote to “UNHCR in Bulgaria, the State Agency for Refugees (SAR), and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs „to request a visa on humanitarian grounds“. However, the Bulgarian Border Police or other Bulgarian authorities were not seen at the whole scenery on the Turkish side of the Turkish-Bulgarian border today.

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Another refugee dies on the streets of Bulgaria

Ten refugees from Afghanistan were injured and one died after their car overturned near the Aldomirovo swamp in the Dragoman region. The driver ignored a police sign of the border police and crushed against a concrete block. Six migrants were taken to the ISUL hospital, four to the „Pirogov“ hospital and another four to the UMBAL „St. Anna“ hospital. In the last days several drivers were stopped, who carried refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.

Such incidents happen regularly in Bulgaria during the last months. During a crash in February 2023 one refugee from Afghanistan died by the end of February. In the same month 18 refugees were found dead near Sofia. In the year of 2022 the numbers of the “irregular apprehended migrants in Bulgaria“ increased from 10,799 (in 2021) to 16,767.

Source: ECRE/SAR

Iliana Savova, the Director of the Refugee and Migrant Legal Programme at the Bulgarian
Helsinki Committee (BHC), wrote in her new report, which was published together with the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), that in the same year 5,268 pushbacks were affecting 87,647 people. Still many refugees don’t want to stay in Bulgaria. 46% of the asylum applications were not discontinued, because the appliers were fleeing to another country afterwards.

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Refugee dies on Trakia highway

A minibus with 46 refugees from Afghanistan crashed at the “Trakiya“ highway in the are of Chirpan because of a flat tire. One refugee died at the scene of the accident. 30 injured were taken to nearby hospitals, two are in a serious condition and in intensive care. In total 26 refugees have to stay in a hospital at Stara Zagora. Another Van with 50 refugees was intercepted this morning.

In their confessions two arrested people said that some days ago 120 refugees from Afghanistan had crossed the fence at the border at the Bulgarian-Turkish border with a ladder. From there they had been distributed to different vehicles to move on. Refugees regularly die on the streets of Bulgaria. Most recently, 18 refugees died near Sofia on the 17th of February.

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18 Afghan refugees die in a truck near Sofia

According to Bulgarian authorities 18 dead Afghans were found yesterday in an abandoned truck in the area of Sofia, near the village of Lokorsko. A child is also among the victims. In total more than 50 people were on board. Many of the survivors were taken care of in clinics. According to the Bulgarian Ministry of Health they are in a very bad condition. Some of them are in intensive care. The truck came from the Turkish-Bulgarian border and was probably on its way to the Bulgarian-Serbian border. According to the examinations of the dead bodies, the 18 people died as “a result of suffocation due to being squeezed and pushed into the hiding place of the truck.“

Photo: Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office

There is already a fence covering most parts of the Turkish-Bulgarian land border, which is almost 270 km long. Refugees have no possibilities to ask for asylum at Bulgarian border checkpoints, because they cannot legally enter the Bulgarian territory from Turkey. In the last years several people perished on the illegal routes to and through Bulgaria. Furthermore, Afghan nationals are a “subject to unfair and discriminatory treatment“ in Bulgaria, with very low asylum recognition rates, namely 10%.

Lately the EU-Commission decided on a pilot project, which will offer Bulgaria and Romania an “integrated package of mobile and stationary infrastructure, from cars to cameras and watchtowers to electronic surveillance,“ for their external borders, which is funded by the EU budget and national budgets“. But such inhumane politics will unfortunately not reduce these kind of deadly incidents. As already seen in the examples cases of the Spanish exclaves of Melilla and Ceuta, fences are not stopping people from crossing it. To the contrary, they will cause more likely more cases of death.

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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.

In the city of Sredets, the Bulgarian border police kept arrested refugees in a small shed on the premises of the police station for months and then brought them back to Turkey after a while without giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum beforehand. The investigating journalist Maria Cheresheva told in an interview:

„I heard a lot of testimonies from people who weren’t allowed to apply for asylum. They were pushed back before they could ask for asylum. […] The system works as follows: people caught at the border are immediately pushed back to Turkey, and those caught inland are taken to places like the one in Sredets described. They will be held there for a few hours until their pushback is organized.

Push Back is the term for the practice of pushing back refugees without a residence permit at the national border and from behind the national border. The practice is illegal in the EU, but was taking place for months in Sredets. Bordermonitoring Bulgaria is very concerned about the deadly violence at the Bulgarian-Turkish border and the ongoing Push Backs, which have to be stopped immediately.

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Turkish media report about deadly push-Back form Bulgaria

The government friendly newspaper Yeni Şafak and Turkish state news Anadolu Agency reported about a Push-Back of refugees from Bulgaria to Turkey. The Stockholm Freedom Center reports that two people were beaten and push-backed by Bulgarian authorities. They were found on the ground  in the village of Vaysal in Turkey’s Edirne province by Turkish gendarmerie. One refugee died the other one was suffering from hypothermia brought into a hospital in Edirne.

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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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