Critique by the Council of Europe on Bulgaria’s Push-Back and Detention Regime

Reports by the Council of Europe

In the last months two institutions of the Council of Europe reported about the situation of refugees and asylum-seekers in Bulgaria. One report published in April 2018 by Ambassador Tomáš Boček, Special Representative of the Secretary General on migration and refugees, focuses on regular Push-Backs along the Bulgarian-Turkish border, the Bulgarian asylum system, the detention of those seeking protection, the situation of unaccompanied minors and the problems of integrating recognized refugees. The report, for example, mentions that asylum-seekers are being systematically detained in detention centers in Lyubimets and Busmantsi. One the one hand, they face a lack of knowledge regarding their rights. On the other hand,  a translation deficit during the procedures of registration, interviews, court cases and signing of documents can be observed. Another report by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture published in May 2018, describes limited access to medical care in the detention centers, such as gynecological and psychological treatment. In addition, nearly all types of medicine have to be paid by the detainees themselves. Both reports of the Council of Europe address ill-treatment by staff employed in the detention centers. These range from beatings to more subtle forms of disrespectful treatment.

Ministry of Interior forbids photographing the border fence

In May 2018, the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior banned the photographing of the fence on the Bulgarian-Turkish border. A member of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) has recently published photos proving the partly poor condition of the fence. So far, the Bulgarian government has spent about 85 million euros on the fence. Now, a 300 meter wide corridor in front of it had been declared a security zone. Permission to enter this zone must be requested from the Ministry of the Interior (MoI) and may only be possible  accompanied  by the Bulgarian border police. In Bulgaria, Frontex is running several operations and helps the Bulgarian MoI with the surveillance of the border: “The support is provided through Joint Operations Flexible Operational Activities and Focal Points at Bulgaria’s land borders with Turkey and Serbia as well as relevant air operations“. The Frontex operation at the Bulgarian-Turkish border is also supported by the German Federal Police (Bundespolizei).

German Federal Police in Svilengrad

Meanwhile Turkish media reported that 44 “illegal migrants“ were push-backed by the Bulgarian border police in the Kofçaz district. It was reported that the migrants told Turkish soldiers that they had been had been beaten and had had their money and valuable possessions stolen by the Bulgarian police before they were pushed back by them to Turkey.

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Trial against the Harmanli 21 posponed again

On the 5th of June 2018 the trial against the Harmanli 21 was postponed again. As last time, 10 of the 21 accused migrants were present. The hearing started with people in attendance to support the migrants. They took out a sign saying “Azadi” (the word for “freedom” in several languages) and showed as well a banner saying “Freedom for the 21 migrants from Harmanli” in Bulgarian. Afterwards they were expelled from the court room, one of the migrants was rudely silenced by the judge for thanking the protestors.

Banner in the court: “Freedom for the 21 migrants from Harmanli“

The supporters claimed that they are not a part of any organization and just people, who came in solidarity. Some media did not quote their banner correctly afterwards and some media reports following the event on the very same day noted that among the supporters were „foreigners“ and not everyone spoke Bulgarian language. After the action, a journalist challenged the protesters with a question about police being injured during the riot. One of them answered, by stressing the fact that a 15 year-old boy was in a coma after police violence followed the riot and since then no police has been investigated or accused.

The hearing continued although the statements from all lawyers were pleading against a start. They argued that one month has not passed since the start of the search for the 11 missing migrants. The trial was postponed until August 7th, 2018 at 13.30 h in the Regional Court of Harmanli.

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The start of the trial against the Harmanli 21

On the 24th of April 2018, at 13:30, the first hearing of the trial about the riot in the camp took place at the Regional court in Harmanli. At already 13:00, journalists had gathered in front of the court house. Some of them were calling the accused people “21 pieces“, not people but “pieces“. This is showing the level of professionalism and objectivity the topic of migrants is being handled with by some of the media in Bulgaria. As a van arrived, packed with the accused migrants, which were accompanid by officers from the Migration Directorate, some journalists ran to take pictures and videos of the accused migrants. 

As one could see many of the accused people felt very unconfortable with this situation and tried to avoid being filmed or photographed. 10 of the accused migrants were present at court. They are currently waiting in the pre-trial detention in the closed camp in Lyubimets. Another 11 accused were missing. Most of the migrants were represented by public defenders and there was no representative from the State Agency of Refugees (SAR).

The trial did not start yet, and the hearing was no longer than 30 minutes. The argument was searching for and sending letters to the 11 missing people, who did not appear. The authorities in Bulgaria are accusing the migrants in the refugee detention center of a damaging different things in the value of about 85,000 Leva (42,000 Euro). The accusations are hooliganism and property destruction.

Most of the accused migrants claimed that they are innocent and were gathered randomly from the camp in Harmanli by the police. They claimed that, as reported beforewhen the police and gendarmerie entered the rooms at the night night after the alleged riot and brutally beat up migrants in the camp many people were sleeping. Many media „professionals“ failed to notice and report on this small detail. 

The next hearing will be on the 5th of June, 2018 in the Regional court of Harmanli at 13:30.

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Court hearing scheduled for the Harmanli 21

The Harmanli local district court had scheduled the court hearing against 21 Afghans, who are accused of taking part in the riot on the 24th of November 2016. After the riot, that broke out following a protest against quarantine measures, inhabitants of the camp accused the police of using brutal violence. They publicly stated that the gendarmerie stormed houses while some people were sleeping, who had nothing to do with the riot. Pictures were shared by the asylum seekers, which were showing many injuries.

The court hearing will take place on the 24th of April 2018 at 1.30 pm in Rayonen Sad (РАЙОНЕН СЪД) at Yanko Sakazov Street 1, 6450 Tsentar, Harmanli.

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The death of Rebin Mitran

The young man in the photo who is raising up his fist is Rebin Mitran, an Iraqian Kurdish citizen who got a refugee status in Bulgaria. He died on the 1st of March in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, very likely because of the low temperatures, which were minus 18 degrees during that time. He was found lying at Botevgradsko shose Blvd. in a very bad condition. He was transported to the municipal Crisis Centre for Homeless People in Zaharna Fabrika district where he died later that night.

Rebin Mitran during a Food Not Bombs action (Foto: Galina Lacheva)

Public servant in the center claims that an ambulance has been dispatched on the street where Rebin was found but did not take him to an emergency room. There are also two conflicting versions on what happened in the center: the one claims that a call has been made for an ambulance but it did not came; and the other claims that Rebin died right when the ambulance arrived. The police is still investigating the case.

One fact is that for a longer time Rebin did not have the money for picking up his identity documents from the authorities. He did not speak Bulgarian, and he was not fluent in English language. Rebin did not have an income and no home, he used to sleep at friends’ places or on the street. Rebin had health problems, e.g. he was struggling with his mental health, the autoimmune disease psoriasis and problems with his leg on which he could not take care. Only volunteers from different groups and organizations helped him from time to time.

The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) called the situation “zero integration year(s)”, since the first National Program for the Integration of Refugees (NPIR) was adopted and applied until only the end of 2013. Since then no integration support program is existing. In the last report of the BHC one could read the following:

This resulted in extremely limited access or ability by these individuals to enjoy even the most basic social, labour and health rights, while their willingness to permanently settle in Bulgaria was reported to have decreased to a minimum.

Rebin was one of many refugees in Bulgaria who could not cope with the harsh situation there. Without social money or the lack of health care his condition got worse day by day. Rebin said he had relatives in Germany and he thought about living there. Besides that, he had a mother in Iraq, who died a few months ago.  His story shows very clearly that having a refugee status means not much in Bulgaria.

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The (unseen) violent and forced push-backs on the Bulgarian-Turkish land border

Last month (12th-14th February 2018) members of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs in the European Parliament were present in Bulgaria to collect objective first-hand information on the Bulgarian-Turkish land border. After the visit Marie-Christine Vergiat, the leader of the committee mentioned the technique of the Bulgarian border guards who are calling the Turkish collegues to avoid an ‚official push-back‘, which would mean a violation against the Non-refoulement principle:

Moreover, last week the European Parliament adopted a report on human rights in Turkey, and this police cooperation was puzzling us, especially since both sides were telling us that when they saw large groups of people on the Turkish side of the border, that the Bulgarian border guards called on the Turkish border guards. So this avoids the push-back. I keep asking myself, maybe among them there are also Turkish citizens. And they are sent back to the Turkish authorities.

In 2016 the State Agency for Refugees (SAR) registered 19,418 asylum applications in Bulgaria, for the year 2017 the published statistics only show 3,700 asylum applications. In December 2017, Turkish authorities stated that in one year they prevented 20,014 people from entering Bulgaria and Greece via the Turkish land border by using force. The additional fact that the Bulgarian Borderpolice is acting on the Turkish territory as well was already described in our report from 2014. Such action is probably also done from by Greek authorities from time to time, as very recently two Greek soldiers were arrested by Turkish border guards who were already standing on the Turkish territory. Aljazeera reported in January 2018 about push-backs, directly done by the Greek authorities.

After the visit in Bulgaria Vergiat meantioned bigger contradictions between the NGOs they met and the Bulgarian authorities. Violence used by Bulgarian authorities is an ongoing topic and was recently mentioned in the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) report “Games of Violence“. Violent Push Backs by the Bulgarian authorities were also a matter in a report, which was written by the Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in May 2017. In July 2017 Balkan Insight published a video and an article with several statements of refugee women. One woman, who was in her sixth month of pregnancy, claimed that she lost her baby. Another one stated:

On the border between Turkey and Bulgaria, a Bulgarian policeman grabbed me by the neck and threw me on the floor. Then he hit me with a huge clump of dirt – here.

In February 2018 the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior (MoI) claimed that there is no migration influx at the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Nevertheless it was announced that there are 160 Million Euro more for Bulgaria to spend in the European Integrated Border System. Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) calls for a further investigation on the general practice of violence and the executed and additionally ‚outsourced‘ Push-Backs at the Turkish-Bulgarian border.

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Local District Prosecutor’s Office indicts 21 asylum seekers for a riot at Harmanli’s refugee camp

A Local District Prosecutor’s Office decided to indict 21 asylum seekers for “hooliganism with boldness and cynicism“ concerning the riot which happened in December 2016 in Harmanli’s refugee camp. The riot broke out after authorities closed Bulgaria’s biggest refugee camp, because of a quarantine issue. Before the closing of the camp neo-nazi and right wing protesters gathered on a regular basis in front of the camp to demonstrate against foreigners. The authorities obeyed the orders from the xenophobic and racist groups and parties and closed the camp for several days.

An injured man after being attacked by the police

After the riot broke out on the 24th of November 2017, the camp was stormed in the following night by a special unit of the gendarmerie. According to several civil rights organizations, volunteers and refugees many people in the camp were attacked and heavily injured without being involved in the riot. Krassimir Kanev, the head of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) stated:

Lots of completely innocent refugees were chased in their rooms, attacked and severely beaten up by the police in the course of that operation. Nor is there any prosecution of those who closed the Harmanli center on the instigation of nationalists, turning it into a prison for several days, which provoked the riot. Instead, we are going to have several rioters prosecuted for destruction of property and hooliganism

The Center for Legal Aid – Voice in Bulgaria (CLA) condemned “the absence of investigation of the police use of force against the asylumseekers“. Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) shares the concerns which were raised by the BHC and the CLA. The aim of the prosecution cannot justify the possible unlawful acts of the police, the State Agency for Refugees (SAR) and the the Health Inspectorate, which should be investigated by an independent agency.

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Violation of Article 3 during detention: ECHR rules against Bulgaria

On the 7th of December 2017, the European Court of Human Rights (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. The press release of the ECHR reads as follows:

In August 2015 the applicants, an Iraqi couple and their three sons, who had fled Iraq, tried to pass covertly through Bulgaria in order to seek international protection in Western Europe. They were however intercepted near the Bulgarian-Serbian border on 17 August and arrested because they had not entered the country lawfully. They were then kept in immigration detention in a short-term holding facility in Vidin pending their transfer on 19 August to a bigger immigration detention facility in Sofia. On 31 August 2015 they settled in an open facility for asylum-seekers. Shortly afterwards, they left this facility and made their way to Switzerland.Relying on Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) of the European Convention, the applicants complained in particular about the conditions in which the three minors – then aged 16, 11 and one and a half years – had been kept in the detention facility in Vidin. Submitting a video recording, the applicants alleged in particular that the cell in which they had been held had been extremely run-down, with dirty and worn out bunk beds, mattresses and bed linen as well as litter and damp cardboard on the floor; and that, as there had been no toilet in the cell, they had had to urinate on the floor. They also complained that the authorities had failed to provide them with food and drink for the first 24 hours of their custody and that the baby bottle and milk of the youngest child had been taken away upon their arrival at the facility and only given to the mother 19 hours later.

The full decision of the ECHR can be downloaded here.

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The Black Hole of EU-Asylum

European Commission, State Agency for Refugees and Ministry of Interior keep silent regarding a leaked letter addressing the situation of Asylum Seekers in Bulgaria

In November 2017, a leaked document from 6th July circulated in the media. The document, written by Laurent Muschel Director of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs, addresses problems with the asylum policy of Bulgaria. His letter urges the State Agency for Refugees and the Ministry of Interior to act on several grave and disturbing tendencies that have been consistently criticised by stakeholders, NGOs, and experts.

Mr Muschel lists a number of problems with the current conditions for asylum seekers and refugees in Bulgaria, such as: inadequate legal assistance, health and social services for asylum seekers and refugees, including vulnerable groups and unaccompanied minors; shortage of trained staff in the centers for detention and accommodation of asylum seekers that can provide assistance to vulnerable groups and unaccompanied minors; shortage of trained interpreters and reports of inferior quality of interpretation services; inferior living conditions at the accommodation centers; consistent high rate of rejections of asylum seekers from Afghanistan, significantly higher than the EU average, which raises concerns of discrimination and inadequate or insufficient evaluation of their applications; unclear national integration strategy that lacks detail and evidence of implementation.

As of yet, the European Commission (EC), the Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees (SAR) and the Ministry of Interior (MoI) have not commented on the document. In the letter, the EC describes its support for the Bulgarian asylum and refugee policy institutions as “significant amounts of EU funding while operational support is being provided by the EU Asylum Agency (EASO)“. EASO, however, discontinued its presence in Bulgaria at the end of October 2017 without any final report on the progress in the Bulgarian asylum system and without commenting on the leaked document.

Detention Center of Busmantsi / Sofia

Throughout 2016 MoI was responsible for 10,914 people, who were placed in “pre-removal detention“ upon their arrival(*1). The reasons for detention, which lasts for days, weeks, and often months, remain unclear and somehow arbitrary. Last year, Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) learnt from several interviews with asylum seekers who have been detained in Busmantsi (a detention center located in the outskirts of Sofia) that they were not informed of the reasons for their detention or its length. BMB has also registered cases of detention of women and minors. In 2016 the Bulgarian Ombudsman, Maya Manolova, revealed that unacompanied minors have also been detained.  The Bulgarian Helsinki Commitee “identified 1,821 unaccompanied children detained in the national immigration detention centres“. The Bulgarian  Foundation for Access to Rights (FAR) found out the following in 2016:

According to the answer received as at 18 July 2016 the numbers were as follows: there were 409 detained foreign nationals in the Sofia Detention Centre of whom 337 had applied for asylum and 222 in the Lyubimets Detention Centre of whom 53 had applied for asylum. This shows that the authorities are breaking the law and fail to comply with the requirement stipulated in Article 20(2) of the Regulation on Immigrant Detention Centres to release the foreign nationals who have submitted a first application for international protection.

Additionally, since 1st January 2016, during the period of assessment of their application asylum seekers can be placed  in closed reception facilities under the jurisdiction of the State Agency for Refugees (SAR). In the year of 2016, 400 people had to stay in “Asylum Detention“ for reasons of “protection of national security or public order“. At present, the only official closed facility managed by SAR is located within the detention center in Busmantsi and has a capacity of 60 people. In October 2017, 14 out of the 17 asylum seekers detained in the facility were Afghans (*2), which corroborates reports of discriminatory treatment of this group.

BMB is alarmed by the systematic practice of arresting asylum seekers in Bulgaria. More than half of the 19,418 asylum seekers in 2016 have been arrested. The situation is especially dire for Dublin returnees, who can apply for  “just  one reopening and within a time-limit of 6 months since the procedure has been discontinued“. Many asylum seekers are especially vulnerable to arrest, they suffer grave consequences, including additional trauma from their detention in jail or their experiences during their flight. In light of this criticism and the apparent awareness of EU about the problems in the Bulgarian asylum system, Dublin deportations to Bulgaria remain even more problematic.

*1 The numbers are quoted from the report of  Center for Legal Aid – Voice in Bulgaria “Who gets detained? Increasing the transparency and accountability of Bulgaria’s detention practices of asylum seekers and migrants” from 2016.
*2 In its letter, the EU Commission was also concerned about the recognition rate of Afghan asylum seekers in BG for international protection status in 2016 (2,5%), which was a lot lower than the average of other EU countries (65%)
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Traces of migration flow at the Bulgarian-Turkish border

Yesterday, on the 20th of October 2017 the Defence Minister of Bulgaria Krassimir Karakachanov stated that ladders had been used to climb the fence at the Bulgarian-Turkish border. On the same day the minister said to BGNews that the fence is 100% finished and has to be “upgraded with relevant sensors [and] cameras“. Days before, photos were circulating in the Bulgarian media showing a large hole underneath the fence, which were leading to a bigger discussion in the Bulgarian parliament and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) has called for the resignation of the Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov. In 2016, the Bulgarian parliament voted for using the army at the Bulgarian borders to guard it, but since then it was used only partly.

Since weeks the migration flow at the Turkish-Bulgarian border is increasing again. The UNHCR came out with a report in August 2017 which added together the numbers of interceptions at the Turkish-Greek and the Turkish-Bulgarian land borders from January-August 2017 and mentioned a quantity of 17,067 people. Only in August 2017 a number of 464 was intercepted at the Bulgarian-Turkish border by Turkish land forces. In September and October 2017 Turkish authorities reported about several attempts of crossing the Bulgarian border, which were reported broadly in the Turkish media. As opposed to this a number of 586 intercepted people was mentioned in the last report of the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior for September 2017.

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