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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Serbian Constitutional Court rules against illegal pushback by Serbian border police to Bulgaria

In December 2020, the Serbian Constitutional Court ruled, that Serbian border control officers unlawfully deported a group of Afghan refugees from Serbia to Bulgaria in February 2017 and violated their rights. The court ordered Serbian authorities to pay the 17 members of the group, who brought the lawsuit, 1,000 Euro (each) in compensation.

The Serbian border police brought them back to the Serbian-Bulgarian border in the middle of the night below-freezing temperatures. Afterwards the group felt that it had no choice and returned to Bulgaria, where they came from a day earlier. To the group of Afghan refugees where also children were belonging.

After the Push-Back to Bulgaria some of the refugees stayed there in camps for some days, before some of them made it it back to Serbia again and moved on towards Western Europe. The documentation of the Push-Back was done by lawyers and the group was represented by the lawyer Nikola Kovacevic in front of the Serbian court.

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Turkish citizen deported from Bulgaria to Turkey without a fair asylum procedure

Two days ago another Turkish citizen had been expelled from Bulgaria to Turkey. This time it was the 39-year-old Selahattin Ürün, a political refugee and activist for the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and a former mayoral candidate of the city of Uludere. He was driven on the 18th of September 2020 from Kazichene prison in Sofia suburbs (a part of Sofia central prison where he has spent 9 month) in a car of the Bulgarian border police to the Bulgarian-Turkish border and handed over to the Turkish authorities just before he was able to appear in front of the administrative court for the trial about his refugee application. On the very same day the EU Commission approved a sum of 12.8 million euro extra funding to Bulgaria which should support additional border guards participating in operations at its southern external borders.

The group that supported Mr. Ürün in Bulgaria reported that he has several charges in Turkey, all of which are based on the accusations of “spreading terrorist propaganda”. Already last year, on the 18th of December 2019, Mr. Ürün was caught at Bulgarian-Romanian border of Russe-Djurdju/Danube bridge during his attempt to cross to in Western Europe. He was detained in Russe police station and after 20 days moved to Kazichene prison. Afterwards he was charged for “illegal crossing the border“ and became a nine months sentence. Mr. Ürün had asked for asylum in Bulgaria and regarding to that he was awaiting a trial which was scheduled for the 29th of September 2020.

The supporters group reported that Mr. Ürün was sure that he was not threatened by any deportation and that he will be released on the 18th of September 2020 to be brought to the immigration prison in Lyubimets at the Bulgarian-Turkish border. On that day around 12 o`clock Selahattin Ürün was released from Sofia Central Prison, but instead to be fully liberated or transferred to Lyubimets detention center (until his court session on the 29th of September), he was taken by a car of the Migration border police department and around 4 o`clock p.m. to the Bulgarian-Turkish border where he was handed over to the Turkish authorities. The supporters were not informed by the authorities about the deportation. Later on the very same day Mr. Ürün’s wife informed the supporters group that Mr. Ürün is already in Turkey in the Edirne police station. Before this information was finally revealed Ürün’s lawyer, the well-known Bulgarian migration lawyer Valeria Ilareva, was not allowed to talk to the Migration Directorate about her client.

The case was brought the first time to public by MEP Ivo Hristov (BSP) on Facebook. After several Bulgarian media outlets reported about the case, the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior (MoI) released a statement in which it claimed that Mr. Ürün was deported under “a readmission agreement of the EU and Turkey“. Furthermore the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior clarified that since 2016, following an alleged readmission agreement between the EU and Turkey, officially 431 people were deported from Bulgaria to Turkey (Interestingly there is no public document existing about the mentioned EU-Turkey agreement by the MoI from 2016 where Bulgaria plays a role). Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) already mentioned several similar cases in its former statements and reports in the last years. Furthermore Asylum requests by Turkish passport holders in Bulgaria had a disapproval rate of 100% in 2018 and 2019

At the beginning of this week, the German magazine SPIEGEL published an investigation, citing secret documents from the Turkish embassy in Sofia. According to the article, the Bulgarian premier Boyko Borissov, the Bulgarian secret service and the former special attorney of Bulgaria, General Sotir Tsatsarov, have helped Turkey to prosecute several Turkish opposition members in Bulgaria. BMB claims that such legally unratified procedures are violating the Non-refoulement principle and the responsible EU authorities should immediately start an investigation concerning this matter.

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New report published

Together with we published a new report in June 2020 on the situation of people on the move in Bulgaria. The report, which is available in German language, is an update to the report from 2014. For many years now, Bulgaria has been using massive violence in order to stop people from crossing the border from Turkey. The practice of violent and illegal push-backs, including robbery of money, mobile phones and even food, can be found all over Europe today. Bulgaria was one of the first countries to massively rely on this practice. Many human rights organizations and official EU representatives have warned about this situation for years.

Refugee Camp in Harmanli

Since 2016 a new tactic is being conducted, that relies on the cooperation between the Turkish and the Bulgarian border authorities. In so called Pull-backs, people are being prevented from getting close to the border and eventually cross it already in Turkey by Turkish border authorities. According to Turkish authorities, some 90,000 people were stopped in the Turkish border region Edirne in 2019. The report assumes that, after the failed coup in 2016, Turkey’s interested to stop those in opposition to the government from crossing the border lead to the cooperation in the pull-back actions. In turn, Bulgaria is very willing in returning Turkish citizens back to Turkey. Asylum requests by Turks in Bulgaria had a disapproval rate of 100% in 2018 and 2019. While the Greek-Turkish land border was soon the hotspot of the growing tension between Turkey and the EU the situation at the Bulgarian-Turkish border remained calm.

Our report also speaks about extreme-right vigilante groups who patrol in the border region in Bulgaria and about the deaths of people on the move, often in direct connection with previous push-backs. We report about detention, which is the norm for most people who get arrested and then file an asylum application while in detention. Furthermore we speak discuss the failure to provide access to remedy.

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Bulgaria’s responsibility at the EU’s Borders with Turkey

The current situation at the Greek-Turkish border’s camp at Pazarkule / Kastanies is unbearable. On March 13, 2020, 19 Bulgarian civil society organizations and activists sent an open letter to Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and EC Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, calling for the Bulgarian government and the European Commission to take steps so that Bulgaria uses according to its purpose the already built with European funds infrastructure for the reception of asylum seekers, by receiving on its territory asylum seekers.

In the letter the organizations mention that they are astonished to hear the Prime Minister’s statement from the 10th of March 2020, that Bulgaria is requesting from the EC an additional 130 million euro to handle a (non-existant) migration crisis. The letter also mentions that since 2015 to this day, Bulgaria has received more than 300 million euro from European taxpayers’ money, in order to build its capacity for both border protection and the creation of a functioning system for providing international protection and appropriate reception condition for asylum seekers. The emergency fundig received for this purpose just in the end of 2016 under AMIF and the Internal Security Fund (ISF) amount to nearly 150 million euro.

On the 2nd of March, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov met with Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan in Ankara who assured the Bulgarian president that the Bulgarian border “will remain calm“. The step of Borissov is surprising, because currently Bulgaria’s reception capacity for asylum seekers is 5,160 places in the reception centres of the State Agency for the Refugees (SAR), which are currently occupied at 7% of capacity. The open letter mentions that at the same time, the refugee camps on the Greek islands are filled up to ten times of capacity. It highlights as well that Bulgaria, has not to this moment in time, expressed any readiness to help relieve the situation in Greece by receiving some of these people on its territory and using the reception centres built for this purpose.

Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) shares the demands and calls on the responsibility of Bulgaria to use the money of the EU for the intention that it was given for.

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