Schengen: Joining at any cost

At the end of March 2024, Romania and Bulgaria will no longer be subject to border controls when crossing the sea and air borders into European countries that belong to the so-called Schengen area. This is a success for the two Balkan states, which have been members of the EU since 2007. However, research shows that at least in the case of Bulgaria, there has been less scrutiny of human rights violations, and that there were no serious violations of human rights when the country joined the Schengen area. The country’s admission to the Schengen area is primarily about securing the EU’s external borders.

Bulgaria has been a focal point for migration movements for years, as its geographical location on the border with Turkey makes the country on the Black Sea an important transit country for refugees seeking to enter the EU. As the Mediterranean is considered the most dangerous escape route in the world, many people choose the overland route, often to Bulgaria. Although there are no official statistics on this, the Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior published corresponding data in January. According to this, the Bulgarian border police prevented around 180,000 “illegal“ entry attempts by migrants in 2023. There were already 5,000 this year. The Bulgarian authorities are being supported by the largest land operation of the border protection agency Frontex, „Operation Terra“, with a new border surveillance system and the number of staff involved is to be increased by 500 to 600 from March, as Hans Leijtens, the head of Frontex, recently announced.

Time and again, people fleeing are forcibly returned to Turkey without checking whether they want to apply for asylum. This process is actually illegal, as it violates the principle of non-refoulement, which is enshrined in international law. Leijtens, who was elected Executive Director in December 2022, had promised before taking office on March 1 2023, that there would be no more pushbacks in the EU. His predecessor Fabrice Leggeri, who resigned in April 2022, was accused of covering up such violations. At the time, the European Anti-Fraud Office (Olaf) found that indications of human rights violations were ignored within Frontex. During pushbacks in the Aegean Sea, there had been instructions to look the other way, and illegal behavior by national border protection authorities had been covered up. Leggeri, who has resigned, is now running for the far-right Rassemblement National Party in France in the upcoming European Parliament elections.

However, it is questionable whether anything has changed in Frontex’s usual practice under him. According to research by Bulgarian journalist Maria Cheresheva and researcher Luděk Stavinoha from the British University of East Anglia for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), pushbacks that Frontex and the EU Commission were actually aware of were consistently ignored, particularly in relation to Bulgaria. Obviously, Bulgaria’s chances of joining the Schengen area were not to be jeopardized. This is evidenced by internal documents containing vivid details of alleged brutalities committed by Bulgarian border officials during Frontex operations. There were also violent incidents in Bulgaria after Leijtens took over Frontex. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, which advises national EU governments and EU institutions on human rights issues, and the EU Commission were obviously aware of the human rights violations. According to the report, Frontex Fundamental Rights Officer Jonas Grimheden had regularly voiced his concerns to the Frontex Management Board, in which the Commission is also involved.

For some people on the run, the journey through Bulgaria ended fatally. Over the past two years, at least 93 people have died while fleeing on Bulgarian soil, according to findings published at the end of last year by a research collective with the participation of ARD’s Vienna studio and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The majority died from the hardships of the long distances that the migrants had to cover on foot over mountains and through forests, but some refugees also died as a result of contact with the Bulgarian border police. Recently on the 30th of March 2024, the 17 years old Fadi Abbas Al-Daher from Syria died at a location between the Bolyarov villages of Malko Sharkovo and Mamarchevo, as reported by the Mission Wings Foundation.

Instead of scandalizing human rights violations before Bulgaria’s Schengen accession, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called on the EU countries in September 2023 to admit Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen area without delay. Both countries have been striving to join for more than a decade. At the beginning of last year, they offered to implement a pilot project to prevent „irregular arrivals“ and to strengthen border and migration management as well as accelerated asylum procedures and the swift deportation of those rejected. Bulgaria received 69.5 Million Euros to implement the project. The EU Commission has since announced that further funds will be allocated to Bulgaria and Romania for the reinforcement and modernization of existing border surveillance systems at the EU’s external borders as well as the purchase of means of transport or operating equipment.

Detention Center of Lyubimets – Credit: Outriders

There is also criticism of the pilot project in the European Parliament. Dutch MEP Tineke Strik from the Groenlinks party recently raised the issue of human rights violations at the EU’s external borders. Strik is a member of a group in the European Parliament tasked with reviewing the work of Frontex. A few days ago, she visited a facility as part of the EU pilot project in the small Bulgarian village of Pastrogor on the border with Turkey, where asylum seekers have been undergoing a fast-track procedure since March 2023. The high walls with cameras and barbed wire make the complex, which was built with EU funds back in 2012, look like a prison. Strik fears that the facility could be used as a closed camp, like e.g. the closed center of Lyubimets which is located in the near. The one-sided focus on border controls was to the detriment of the protection of human rights and a humane reception system, as she stated on her Linkedin profile. She had therefore requested a discussion in the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) to challenge the European Commission on this matter.

Such concerns are not unjustified. According to the reform of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) adopted last year, a decision will in future be made within seven days as to whether a person will be directly returned or transferred to the regular asylum procedure after being apprehended in the EU border area. During this time, “identification“ of the person, “health and security checks“ and “the collection of biometric data and registration in the Eurodac database“ are to take place. The European Dactyloscopy fingerprint identification system (EURODAC), including data comparison, is used to prevent refugees from applying for asylum in several EU member states. It is also intended to check in this short time whether the person is particularly vulnerable or has been the victim of torture. In fact, the examination takes place under the legal fiction that the person has not yet entered the country, even though they are already on EU soil. This provides the best conditions for the current practice of looking the other way at the EU’s external borders to continue as before.

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Almost 100 refugees died on their way through Bulgaria within the last two years

According to a research by the ARD studio in Vienna in cooperation with Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, RFE/RL, Solomon and inews which was published in the beginning of December 2023 at least 93 people died on their way through Bulgaria in the last two years alone.

The research team spoke with forensic pathologists in Bulgaria and people whose family members had gone missing or died on the route. The people on the run are usually dying because of exhaustion and cold on their route, which leads through mountains, bushes and the countryside. The last case was reported on the 27th of November 2023 by the Bulgarian authorities. Additionally there is a fence at the Bulgarian-Turkish border which was constructed already in 2013 and replaced and modified in the following years with a bigger one. Additionally to this numerous car accidents are happening regularly. Some of them are fatal.

Video Source: May Bulman/Lighthouse reports

But not only the dangerous way is the problem for the people on the run, there is also the Bulgarian border police, which is accused of brutal Push-Backs. According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee only in 2022 almost 90.000 people where affected by push-backs. Also young people with their families and unaccompanied minors are at risk to be push-backed, as the NGOs “Center for legal aid – Voice in Bulgaria“ and “Mission Wings“ found out, while conducting interviews in Turkey. For 2023 Interior Minister Kalin Stoyanov stated that that app 165,000 ‚illegal entry attempts‘ at the Bulgarian-Turkish were prevented.

With regard to Bulgaria, the fundamental rights officer of the EU border protection authority Frontex became active in a total of seven internally reported cases regarding possible violations of fundamental rights, the authority said in response to a request from ORF. In the beginning of December 2023. All cases concern pushback allegations from Bulgaria to Turkey, a Frontex spokeswoman said. At least 232 Frontex officers were deployed in Bulgaria in 2023.

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Asylum seekers say that they were tortured and beaten in Edirne’s detention center

Members of the detained 104, who are part of the religious minority of the religious minority group Ahmadi Religion of Peace and Light, claim that they were tortured and beaten. The group, including elderly and children, asked for asylum in Bulgaria on the 24th of May 2023. After presenting themselves at the Turkish-Bulgarian border-crossing, Turkish authorities attacked them and detained the whole group. Days later the website of the religious minority published videos and voice records, which documented the violence of the Turkish authorities, that were also taking place during and after the incident at the border in the detention center in Edirne, which is located near the border.

Statement of Hassan Oyandi
Photo Sources: The Ahmadi Religion of Peace and Light

With the group were also two British journalists arrested. In a statement, which was published by the Scottish Sun, one of the journalists, Sermad Al-Khafaji, said, that he was wearing a press vest and that had a press badge with him, when he was detained while holding a camera. He additionally stated that the Turkish police had also tried him to stop from filming and isolated him from the group. The two journalists are also accused as “British agents“. This phenomenon is not new. Since years Turkish authorities are trying to regulate the flow of information, using oppressive and discreditable tactics.

The second journalist, Alexandra Foreman, described the bad conditions in which the group is being held in Edirne’s detention center. She also said, that she was forced to see how a group of people was beaten in front of her. Redouane Foufa, a refugee from Algeria, said that he was beaten and injected with an unknown substance in the detention center. Some of the group members were being forced to sign documents, which they did not understand. Another young refugee, Poorya Lotfiinanllou from Iran, claimed that he was asked by a Turkish police officer for oral sex and that the officer threatened his life if he tells to a doctor.

Pulling and pushing back asylum seekers from the Turkish-Bulgarian border is not a new occurance. By the end of 2022, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, published a letter, addressed to Bulgarian politicians in which she expressed concern about reports regarding pushbacks at Bulgaria’s land borders. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee reported about push-backs which affected more than 87,000 people, only in the year 2022. Recently the European Commission provided 45 Million Euro as a new financial support to Bulgaria, which will be added to the national program „under the Border Management and Visa Policy (BMVI) home affairs funding“.

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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 Kapikule 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 Source: 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.

Source: Lighthouse Reports Twitter Account

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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