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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Bulgaria declares state of emergency and suspends all asylum-related procedures

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic the Bulgaria declared a state of emergency on the 13th of March 2020. The country suspended all asylum-related procedures. Exceptional of this rule are the renewal of asylum documents and the registration of asylum seekers transferred from pre-removal detention facilities.

The UNCHR published in an article that, during the Covid-19 period, refugees in Bulgaria suffer from „stress and uncertainty, movement restrictions, difficulty in obtaining basic hygiene products and medicines, as well as hampered access to services including health and psychosocial support.“ It also stressed out that „during this unprecedented time of isolation, the loss of employment opportunities, incomes and shelter have exacerbated the situation, increasing the risk not only to becoming ill but also to other risks such as gender-based violence.“

Update: The lockdown was officially lifted on 13 May 2020, but it was not before the beginning of June 2020 that determination procedures resumed at all instances.

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Bulgaria is not changing its push-back policy at its border to Turkey

On the 27th of February 2020 the Turkish government announced migrants will no longer be stopped on the Turkish side of the borders to Greece and Bulgaria. Following this statement thousands of migrants are moving on to Edirne, which is located in the three country border region. For this they used buses (non-stop), organized by the Turkish government, some took taxis. While during the night many people tried to cross the Turkish-Greek border, 60 migrants have been pushed back at the Bulgarian-Turkish border on the following morning.

The practice of pushing people back to Turkey has not changed so far. During the last days the Greek border is much worse when it comes to the number of people who have been pushed back in only in a short while, but for Greece and Bulgaria this push back practice is not new. While in the past asylum seekers and Bulgarian government officials have both admitted that the Bulgarian border fence could be easily crossed, the Bulgarian authorities have a bad reputation, regarding their behavior towards migrants. The Bulgarian Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov just stated that the bulgarian army is ready at any time.

Border fence near Border Crossing Kapıkule/Kapitan Andreevo

Media reported that FRONTEX installed 60 additional staff members to the already existing 50 ones at the Bulgarian-Turkish border. This raises the question of whether FRONTEX will only watch the Bulgarian authorities while they go on with their push-back practice in the upcoming days. Until now, the number of crossing incidents around the Turkish-Bulgarian border near Kapıkule/Kapitan Andreevo seem much lower in comparison to the Greek-Turkish border around Pazarkule/Kastanies – both border crossings are only about 10 km away from each other.

Meanwhile in the whole border region thousands of people, including families, are waiting in the border region under critical weather conditions. Bordermonitoring Bulgaria calls the Bulgarian authorities and FRONTEX to stop the push back practice, which is against international law and the Non-refoulement principle.

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Update on the current situation at the borders to Greece and Turkey

In the first 10 months of 2019, the Bulgarian Border Police officers prevented 2,122 attempts at ‚illegal‘ entry at the Bulgarian-Turkish border and 3,795 attempts at the border with Greece. This was statet by the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior (MoI). In September 2019 the number of people who were trying to attempt the Greek-Bulgarian border was rising. Due to the Bulgarian MoI Mladen Marinov further police units were installed at the border. The Bulgarian premier Boiko Borissow stated that at the moment around a daily amount of 150 migrants are being caught in the border region. Recently the MoI approved also a an emergency response plan.

During a meeting with Alexander Dobrindt in Berlin Borissov statet that he was not sure anymore if a membership of Bulgaria in the Schengenarea during the current times would be meaningful, because of the possible ‚danger‘ of more migrants coming from Greece. Already a few days later Borissov relativized his statement and demanded more support. The European Comission declared that it is aware of the increase of the numbers, but the numbers are a lot lower than before the EU-Turkey deal.

The German broadcoast ARD produced Report München, the British Guardian and the research network Correctiv reported about the Europeans Border Guard’s acceptance of human rights abuses by national Bulgarian officers. The Bulgarian MoI Marinov declared to the accusation that “physical violence is only used, if the situation will require it“. He further stated that this was only happening during attacks against the Bulgarians border guards. FRONTEX declared that it has “no authority towards the behaviour of national border guards and no authorization for launching investigations on the territory of EU-member states“.

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New allegations against Bulgarian authorities concerning a short-term prison in Vidin

The Bulgarian authorities are currently confronted with a specific case concerning an Iraqi citizen who has already returned to his country of origin. On January 13, 2019, he was detained to the CCC – Vidin without identity documents and charged with Article 279, para 1 in connection with art. 18, para 1 of the Penal Code for attempting to cross the state border in an unregulated manner.

The criminal proceedings ended with the NDHD Agreement No. 313-2019 of the Vidin District Court of 21 March 2019, on which date he was released from detention and issued orders for return to the country of origin and accommodated in Busmantsi, a Special Home for temporary accommodation of Foreigners (SCTAF). Soon after his transfer to the SCTAF, he signed a declaration of consent for voluntary return and returned to Iraq.

In the following excerpt of an interview, done by Maddie Harris from Humans for Rights, one can read about his recent experience in a short-term holding facility in Vidin.

[…] (The police) took pictures of us, they said because the interpreter was not our language, he was Arabic and didn’t explain anything. they made us sign some documents without us knowing what it was, by force. They took us to Vidin for 3 months and some days then they took us to court again, and they said you have to sign this document, that you are on probation for three years, if you cross the border again they will put me in jail for five years. 

After that, they took me to Busmantsi in Sofia (after the three months in Vidin) The papers were in Bulgarian and we couldn’t even read it, they said you have to sign them and if you don’t sign them you will stay here (in Vidin), in this border prison, if we sign it, you go to the camps for 15 days and then you will be free, so we signed it, this is force. We signed the papers, they took us from court, the interpreter said you are going to go to the Vidin place for 72 hours and after that you will be free, you will be taken to the camps. We were then in Vidin prison for 72 hours, after that, they took us back to court, and then the court said, that we were going to stay in Vidin for 15 days, we were so mad, they took us back to the prison, but it wasn’t 15 days it was three months and some days. (In the prison) […] there it was so dirty, the room was so dirty, there was fleas in the room the mattress was like 2 years old, there was no pillow, there was no glass in the window, so air was coming and we was three people that had to go to the toilet at the same time and we had to piss and shit in front of each other.[…] 

The prison in Vidin was already mentioned in an European Human Right Court (ECHR) ruling of 2017. The ECHR ruled against Bulgaria a violation of Article 3 (inhuman and degrading treatment) concerning a family with its three children during their detainment in 2015. About the current case of the Iraqi citizen, the Bulgarian Ombudsman was informed some weeks ago.

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Suspension of the EU-Turkey Deal and developments in Bulgaria which could follow

At least since the 19th of July 2019 the EU-Turkey deal is suspended. Furthermore hundreds of people were arrested in Turkey and reports were published of refugees getting deported from Turkey back to Syria. Because of the recent happenings also the numbers could change in Bulgaria again. Nevertheless the Bulgarian government created already its own ties with the Turkish government.

According to the Bulgarian authorities, a total of 4,662 people attempted to cross the Bulgarian-Greek border in 2018 and 5,311 people irregularly crossed the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Thus, in 2018, the number of people who wanted to cross the Bulgarian-Greek border increased by six times (before the suspension of the EU-Turkey deal). However, the numbers at the Turkish-Bulgarian border have fallen, very likely because of the fence, the strong efforts of Frontex and new technical equipment.

Nevertheless the violence at the Bulgarian-Turkish border did not stop. In June 2019, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe again reported regular push-backs from Bulgaria to Turkey and pull-backs in Turkey. The state-run Turkish news agency Anadolu has reported hundreds of migrants arrested in the province of Edirne, which borders Bulgaria and Greece. In May 2019, the agency reported praise from the Turkish authorities by the Bulgarian Prime Minister, who said earlier that the two countries‘ cooperation is “working perfectly in the fight against illegal migration“. Also the Maritza River (Evros) played a bigger role in the recent weeks. In June 2019, it was announced that authorities are investigating a criminal group which is accused of smuggling 30-40 migrants per week by boat across the river to Bulgaria.

If the numbers of refugees will again increase in Bulgaria, a new route could develope via another river at the border to Romania. Recently a case came into the open where migrants tried to cross the Danube. In the night of the 20th of May 2019, the Romanian police arrested eight people who wanted to cross the Danube by boat from Bulgaria to Romania. The five Iraqi refugees were immediately returned to Bulgaria, and three suspected smugglers were arrested in Romania. Additionally to the repression of the authorities the route itself is not harmless. In late May 2019, a smuggler in Bulgaria was sentenced to six years in prison for attempting to send six people across the Danube to Romania in 2016, with six people dying. And by the end of July 2019 Bulgarian media reported about another smuggling group, which was using the Danube river as a transit possibility for migrants.

The above mentioned examples from Bulgaria show, that whatever will follow, the suspension of the EU-Turkey deal will very likely lead to a more unsecure situation for thousands of people who were forced to leave their home countries by force. It should also not go unmentioned that Bulgaria is developing its own tactics regarding to the expulsions of foreigners. According to a recently published Eurostat statistic, 1,305 non-EU citizens were expelled from Bulgaria in 2018. In 2017, it had been 2,600. However, it has to be taken into account that the so-called „voluntary return“ regime, in which the IOM plays a key role in Bulgaria, is important to mention: In 2017, the IOM was involved in the repatriation of 875 refugees, and in 2018 an interview partner of the IOM estimated the the total number of persons returned to 400 to 500 people.

Brochure of the IOM and the Ministry of Interior
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Update about the possible deportation of Mr. Ilhan Karabag

Mr. Ilhan Karabağ has been in detention for two months now at The National Investigation Service (Sofia 1797, bul. G.M.Dimitrov 42, et. 4, 13) and attended several court sessions so far. In front of the court, a small group of protesters demanded a general stop of deportations to Turkey before the last court session. The trial was already several times postponed.

Protest in front of the Sofia Court

By the end of June 2019 the Sofia Administrative Court will decide to accept or reject Mr. Karabag’s appeal for political asylum in Bulgaria. In the previous court session there was at least one presence of a Turkish diplomat. In the same days a decision of the Sofia Court of Appeal (SAC) is awaited which will decide on his deportation to Turkey. His eventual following expulsion would result in his immediate incarceration, as Mr. Karabağ has been sentenced in Turkey to 6 years and 3 months in jail.

Update: At the beginning of July 2019 Mr. Karabağ was deported to Turkey.

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