Infringement procedure against Bulgaria and Asylum Applications 2018

In 2018, according to the recently published statistics by the State agency for Refugees (SAR), 2.536 first-time applications were applied to Bulgaria. Therefrom 81,7 % were men, 33,2 % were underaged and 19,0 % were unaccompanied minors. In the same period of time 317 people got a refugee status (15%) and 413 people obtained subsidiary protection (20%). Noticeable is that applicants that are not from Syria had only bad chances for a status approval.

The in January 2019 released report of the European Refugee Council underlined that the European Commission published on the 8th of November 2018 a press release, in which it states the violation against european law, because of the insufficient accommodation and juridical representation of unaccompanied refugees. The commission states also worries relating to the deficient identifying and support of vulnerable asylum seekers, the generally access to legal aid and the imprisonment of refugees. If Bulgaria not acts within the next two months (from November 2018 on), the infringement procedure may be moved to a second stage.

Meanwhile UNHCR Serbia published in his last report (from 26th November till 16th December 2018) an increase of the influx of migrants from Bulgaria to 37%.

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Collapsed border fence and deployment of a new border police car pool

In December 2018 again a part of the fence at the bulgarian-turkish border collapsed. It was reported that this time it was a circa 12 kilometer long part in the region of Malko Tarnovo, due to heavy rain falls. The governor of the region, Vulcho Cholakov, announced that while the repair is accomplished, additional Border Police is being deployed.

On the 8th of March 2019, 70 new Range Rovers were delivered to the Bulgarian Border Police worth of 3,5 Million Euros, which were co-financed by the European Union’s Internal Security Fund. The vehicles will be used by the Border Police in the regional border stations Dragoman (at the bulgarian-serbian border), Elhovo (at the bulgarian-turkish border) and as well in Kjustendil (bulgarian-macedonian border).

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Camp in Vrazhdebna is closed

On the 17th of December 2018, the camp in Vrazhdebna / Sofia with a capacity of 370 places was until further notice closed. Until now the camp out of three facilities in Sofia was always ranked by the State Agency for Refugees (SAR) and other organizations as a flagship, which was gladly shown to foreign visitors. The residents of the camp where distributed to other camps. Only recently the camp was renovated from EU-money.

The now closed camp in Vrazhdebna 

For that reason only five open camps are existing in Bulgaria, which can be left at least during the day. Contemporary they are used solely by 10%: Voenna Rampa und Ovcha Kupel (both in Sofia, capacity: 800 respectively 860 places), Banya (in Central Bulgaria, capacity: 70), Pastrogor and Harmanli (in South East Bulgaria, capacity: 320 respectively 2.710).

Update: The camp was re-opened in May 2019 and in June 2019 refugees were again hosted in the camp.

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Sentences in Harmanli 21 court case

On the 11th of December 2018, the trial against th Harmanli 21 endet. Only a few of the defendants were present in front of the court. The rest of the accused, who were already partially brought back to Afghanistan, were sentenced in absentia concerning hooliganism and the destruction of the State Agency for Refugee’s (SAR) property to one year jail on probation with a probationary period of three years.

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Harmanli 21: Four stay in Lyubimets – the others have asked for repatriation

On the 24th and 25th of October 2018 another court session against the Harmanli 21 took place. The session was attended by seven people out of the 10 people who attended the last court cases. It was reported, that the three missing people have already asked for repatriation and they have returned to Afghanistan. Furthermore three other people out of the seven had as well asked for their repatriation. That means that at the moment four out the initial 21 accused are continuing to stay in the closed facility of Luybimets. They claimed that they will struggle to prove their innocence.

During the two days of the trial in October 30 witnesses of the events from the 24th of November 2016 were testifying. Many of them were representatives of the riot police from Kazanlak, Pleven and Plovdiv and some employees of the State Agency for Refugees (SAR), in particular the ones who are working in the Open Camp of Harmanli. Since now, no accused migrant was allowed to speak about his own perspective. Because of that since the beginning of the trial the police violence was not mentioned once in front of the court. Although the official and appointed defenders (from the state) were shortly asked about it, but they claimed that the accused did not say anything on this topic.

It is interesting to hear that during the quarantine, the camp was totally overcrowded and  it is quite astonishing that the access to the working places of the SAR employees at the open camp in Harmanli was not denied. Neither police members nor SAR workers could identify the accused migrants as part of the group of 50 people who were rioting in November 2016 – out of several thousands who were living there during this moment and protesting peacefully.

Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) notes that it is very obvious that the Bulgarian State is not interested in a clear enlightenment of what happened on the 24th of November 2016. Instead of that people, who once fled their country and once were registered as asylum seekers in Bulgaria, are urged to leave the country ‚voluntarily‘

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Border crossings to Bulgaria are increasing

In the last months the number of “illegal migrants“ who wanted to cross the border to Bulgaria increased in the time from August 2018 till October 2018. A total of 2.416 people were detained in this period by the Bulgarian authorities. UNHCR Serbia reported recently that still 29% of the recorded numbers of border crossers to Serbia were transiting via Bulgaria.

Meanwhile the Bulgarian Border Police imposed a temporary restriction to an area which is located along the Maritsa River (Greek: Evros River). Especially at the Greek-Bulgarian Border, a special police operation is taking place. The crossings in the Novo Selo district are 4-times higher than during the same time in 2017. A Turkish government connected newspaper reported that in 2018 Turkish authorities have stopped 59,000 “irregular“ migrants so far, who wanted to cross to Bulgaria and Greece.

There are also reports of bigger groups that trying to cross to Bulgaria cooperatively. On the 2nd of October 2018 the Bulgarian police detained as well 18 migrants near the Trakia motorway. On the 29th of October 2018 the Bulgarian police found 47 “illegal“ foreigners in Slivnitsa. Another Turkish government connected newspaper reported in November 2018 that 13 migrants claimed that the Bulgarian border police has beaten and stolen the possessions of the migrants and later pushed them back to Turkey. It was reported that later they were found by Turkish gendarmerie troops in the Kırklareli Province.

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Man from Pakistan died of exhaustion in Bulgaria’s border area

On Tuesday (2nd of October) a Bulgarian border police patrol discovered a group of three people from Afghanistan and two people from Pakistan, near the Bulgarian-Greek border around the little village of Siva Reka. The group reported to the police that they had to leave one man from Pakistan in a helpless condition near a forest, next to the village. The border police searched for the person and found him „obviously heavily exhausted“. The Bulgarian Ministry of Interior (MoI) reported that the man was sent into a hospital, but died on Tuesday evening. The region with the border triangle (Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey) is a transit region for migrants. Already in 2011, a No Border Camp took place in Siva Reka to address the topic of migration in its surrounding area.

In its recently published report the Foundation for Access to Rights (FAR) states that in Bulgaria “(…) detention has remained the main tool for migration management and recourse has even increased. Furthermore, the length of immigration detention has also increased.“ In 2017 the Bulgarian authorities arrested 2,989 people, which where marked as “illegal migrants“ by the MoI – 736 of them were children and 737 were women.

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Court Hearing against the Harmanli 21 again postponed

On the 27th of September the postponed trial (from the 11th and 12th September) took place. Again only 10 Afghan migrants appeared in front of the court. The court still did not do a hearing with them. A small group protested once more in front of the court in Solidarity with the accused migrants. The police intervened and stopped the protest by removing the banners and checking the ID cards of the protestors.

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The trial against the Harmanli 21 has started

Today, the trial against the Harmanli 21 has finally started, after it was already postponed two times. Still only 10 people were present in front of the court and were brought in and out the court building via the back door. All of them are still accommodated in the detention center of Lyubimets. The local District Court of Harmanli announced that during the trial more than 60 witnesses will be questioned. The Judge Veselin Kolarov stressed out that there is an ‚increased public interest‘ in the whole trial.

The fact that no investigation was done by the authorities concerning the police violence against the asylum seekers in the camp of Harmanli was criticized by Bulgarian Human Rights Organizations. Beside that, everybody of the defendants is of Afghan origin. In front of the court a group of people protested in solidarity of the accused migrants. The next court hearing will take place on the 11th of September 2018 at 9.30h.

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Status quo in Bulgaria’s refugee centers

The EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency recently cited the Ombudswoman, in an interview published in its report from July 2018, who criticized the open centers for asylum seekers for their lack of interpreters, qualified psychological care (especially for victims of torture and traumatized people) and adequate infrastructure for disabled people. The deficit of facilities for unaccompanied minors was also criticized by the Ombudswoman. Until today, there is not even a separated area existing for them in Bulgaria’s refugee centers. The hygienic conditions in some buildings are also questionable. Furthermore, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) called 2017 another “zero integration“ year for refugees living in Bulgaria.

As there are decreasing numbers of refugees living in the open centers , the Municipal Councilor of the VRMO, Carlos Contrera, recently suggested in Nova Television to close the open centers and called them ’strategical mistakes‘. Radostina Pavlova from the organization Center for Legal Aid – Voice in Bulgaria (CLA) argued, however, that as long as Bulgaria has a duty to provide asylum, there has to be some basis for asylum seekers to live somewhere in the country. Last month, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov stated that Bulgaria is the only country in the EU, where there is almost “zero pressure“ at the border, highlighting the role model function of Bulgaria. Furthermore, Bulgaria’s parliament recently voted against signing bilateral readmission agreements with other European Union countries for taking back migrants.

In May 2018, the refugee center in Pastrogor was empty, although the fence of the facility was recently extended. The building, set up with EU-money, will most probably turn into a closed camp soon. Also in Harmanli, a new closed area was created. The Bulgarian government agreed already on the 31st of August 2016 to allow the State Agency for the Refugees (SAR) to set up closed camps or transform already existing open camps into closed facilities.

Right after Bulgaria’s EU-Presidency ended in July 2018, visited Bulgaria again, but was unfortunately denied access to the open and closed camps by the SAR and the Ministry of Interior (MoI).

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