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, Bordermonitoring.eu 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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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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