11 April 2014
Bulgaria is currently hosting 7,600 asylum seekers and refugees. Over half of the people who applied for asylum in 2013 were fleeing the war in Syria.
The ECRE Weekly Bulletin has spoken with Iliana Savova, director of the Refugee and Migrant Programme of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) about the situation at the Bulgarian-Turkish border and the reception and detention of asylum seekers and refugees in Bulgaria.
BHC monitors all border facilities between Bulgaria and Turkey through an institutional agreement with the border police and UNHCR, which allows the organisation to make unannounced visits to the facilities for migrants at the border. BHC provides legal assistance to approximately 5,000 people annually and assists refugees with their integration in Bulgaria.
Together with over 100 NGOs, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee has joined the campaign www.helpsyriasrefugees.eu to call on European leaders to give refugees a safe way into Europe, protect refugees arriving at Europe’s borders and reunite families torn apart by crisis.
What is happening at the Bulgarian – Turkish border?
The most important thing for the government was preventing refugees from entering the country, instead of thinking of ways to better accommodate them and provide them with adequate reception conditions. As one of the first measures to stop refugees from entering Bulgaria, the Government decided to intensify border controls. Between the end of October and the beginning of November 2013, 1,400 police were deployed to the border. The police are literally positioned 300 metres from each other on the Bulgarian-Turkish border. This together with the cooperation between the Bulgarian and the Turkish authorities resulted in an immediate and drastic decrease in the number of arrivals. Before these measures, over 1,000 people, mainly people who had fled the conflict in Syria, would arrive every week, in the whole of December less than 100 people entered the country through the Turkish border. In the last week of December, for instance, only 12 people entered Bulgaria.
I cannot state that push backs happen because we do not have any evidence but I think these figures speak for themselves.
“As one of the first measures to stop refugees from entering Bulgaria, the Government decided to intensify border controls. Between the end of October and the beginning of November they deployed 1,400 police to the border. The police are literally positioned 300 metres from each other on the Bulgarian-Turkish border”
What has been the reaction of the government to the arrival of Syrian refugees in Bulgaria?
In the space of just 25 days, from mid- August to mid-September 2013, 5,000 people entered Bulgaria. At the facilities for migrants at the borders, there is not much space and people are only supposed to stay for 24 hours. During these days people were kept in the courtyard of the Regional Directorate of the Border Police which is responsible for the whole Bulgarian-Turkish border. People were outside, in open air, with nothing. We provided them with interpreters during that period to assist with registration and the initial interviews.
The authorities then opened temporary facilities to host the refugees who were arriving. The conditions in these new centres were appalling. The buildings, such as former boarding schools or military camps, had been abandoned for many years. In the Harmanli camp, a closed centre in former military barracks, there was no electricity and sewerage, and asylum seekers were housed under extremely poor living and hygienic conditions.
We visited two camps in Sofia. The buildings where these people were being accommodated resembled a science-fiction movie: they did not have anything, not even windows. You could see people moving in the dark corridors, one mattress for two people. It was a really shocking experience even though we had tried to prepare ourselves for what we could see. Nobody was addressing people’s basic needs, such as food or medical assistance. The only exception among the newly open centres was Kovachevtsi, where conditions were acceptable from the beginning. The centre was established in a small village near Sofia, where the local community welcomes asylum seekers and wants their status to be recognised as soon as possible so that they can move into uninhabited houses and start being part of the community. The mayor has publicly stated that the village needs these individuals.
In September 2013, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) asked for the resignation of the management of the Asylum Agency, which was tendered a couple of weeks later.
It took a while for the government to reorganise itself in terms of institutional capacity, resources and logistics but it has to be acknowledged that efforts are being made and the situation is gradually becoming better. Conditions are improving. With the joint efforts of the civil society, the international community and the State Asylum Agency, things are getting better and moving into the right direction.
Repairs and refurbishment are ongoing in all new centres since December 2013. As of 31 March 2014 reception facilities are largely in a reasonable state. Centres in Banya, Sofia and Pastrogor reached a level of conditions which could be considered adequate and as meeting the reception standards as laid down in the Recast Reception Conditions Directive. Some progress has been made in the Harmanli and Vrazhdebna centres. Voenna Rampa centre is still below standards.
Between August and November 2013 most of the people received food through donations from the Bulgarian population, the International Federation of the Red Cross and various other charities along with actions coordinated by the Red Cross. Later on and until the end of January, UNHCR provided a meal per day to asylum seekers in the camps. Currently, the national authorities distribute two meals per day in all reception centres.
“Before the measures implemented by the Government to stop refugees from entering Bulgaria,over 1,000 people, mainly people who had fled the conflict in Syria, would arrive every week. In the whole of December less than 100 people entered the country through the Turkish border. I cannot state that push backs happen because we do not have any evidence but I think these figures speak for themselves.”
Why was Bulgaria not ready for the arrival of asylum seekers from Syria?
For a very long period of time Bulgaria had a very limited reception capacity for asylum seekers. This was done intentionally. Everybody working on asylum issues could foresee that the number of refugees from Syria coming to Bulgaria would increase but the Government chose not to react to this possible increase.
The conflict had being going on for months and Syrians in Turkey started to realise that the war would not end soon and started to think about their future and how to start a new life. Given the fact that at the time there were over 800,000 Syrians in Turkey, even if just one per cent of them would come to Bulgaria, a catastrophe would happen.
“The Government wanted to use poor reception conditions as a deterrent, thinking that then refugees would stop coming. This is not what happened”
The BHC sent many letters urging the Minister of Interior to think about the reception capacity, arguing that Syrians were starting to move to Bulgaria and that the country was not prepared and that their plan to provide people with tents was nonsense because in Bulgaria the temperatures during winter are very low and it snows.
The Government wanted to use poor reception conditions as a deterrent, thinking that then refugees would stop coming. This is not what happened.
Should European countries resume sending asylum seekers back to Bulgaria under the Dublin regulation?
Reception conditions for asylum seekers have improved but access to medical care is not guaranteed for all. In addition, people recognised as refugees have no integration support at all. They receive no support to find accommodation, to learn the language or to find a job. Despite improvements, the situation is still not adequate to resume sending asylum seekers back to Bulgaria under the Dublin regulation.
“Despite improvements, the situation is still not adequate to resume sending asylum seekers back to Bulgaria under the Dublin regulation”
Are asylum seekers detained in Bulgaria?
The border police and the migration police often say that there are no asylum seekers in detention centres in Bulgaria. However, people who apply for asylum but are still not officially registered as asylum seekers by the Asylum Agency can be detained. Furthermore, they do not have access to the asylum procedure and to the entitlements of asylum seekers such as accommodation, social support and access to health care. According to official statistics, 9,325 persons submitted asylum applications in Bulgaria in 2013, of whom only 7,144 asylum seekers were officially registered by 31 December 2013.
When monitoring detention centres in Bulgaria, we found that many asylum seekers withdrew their applications for international protection because they preferred to be sent back to Turkey or even to other countries including their countries of origin, rather than remaining in detention. “We cannot bear being in the detention centre anymore and being deprived of our liberty because we fled for our freedom and right now we are behind bars without any clear idea of the date of our release”, they would tell BHC.
As highlighted by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, the conditions in Bulgaria’s detention centres are very poor and there is limited access to legal aid. Legal aid was only introduced in the law in March 2013, after five years of BHC’s advocacy on this.
The government is proposing to introduce in the asylum law the possibility of holding asylum seekers in closed reception centres. This is of course a deprivation of liberty but the government argues that they can do this under the Reception Conditions Directive. BHC maintains that the guarantees that exist in the Reception Conditions Directive are not being transposed, particularly in terms of the ability to appeal against detention. Also, under the draft law, unaccompanied children can also be detained.
“Many asylum seekers withdraw their applications because they prefer to be sent back to Turkey or even to other countries including their countries of origin rather than remaining in detention”
Are asylum seekers in Bulgaria being convicted for irregular entry?
Irregular entry is considered a crime in Bulgaria and newcomers have been convicted of these charges for years. However, if someone arrives in an irregular manner to the country but does so because they want to exercise their right to apply for asylum, then this person should not be convicted. This is also stated in the Article 31 of the Refugee Convention. However, the criminal courts and the prosecutor’s officers saw here a good opportunity to get very good conviction rates as it is very easy and very quick to prove this crime. The legal aid lawyers appointed to this kind of cases got in a very perverted matrimony with the prosecutor’s office and advised their clients to plead guilty to get a reduced conviction. People would get a provisional sentence with a conditional delay of implementation of the imprisonment: if they did not commit a crime within a certain timeframe then they did not have to go to prison. Many asylum seekers in this situation tried to leave to go to other European countries. As irregular exit of the country is also considered a crime, when they were arrested for trying to leave the country irregularly, they were brought to court for having committed a crime within the provisional period so they went to jail. Many of them are in prison. It will be very difficult for these persons to find a job as they will have a criminal record.
BHC is working to end this practice and we have seen a drastic decrease of convictions.
Have there been any incidents of violence against Syrians?
Yes, there were some incidents during the autumn when the refugee crisis started, including some people patrolling the streets and checking migrants’ documents. There were several physical attacks against refugees. One kid from Syria was stabbed in the back during the night, while waiting outside of a reception centre for his parents to come out to pick him up. He survived but he had to have surgery.
After this, two other people were beaten on the street. The prosecutor’s office did not treat any of these attacks as hate crime, but just as an act of hooliganism.
This is a very worrying new phenomenon and these crimes need to be dealt properly. The government needs to send a much stronger message.
A hate campaign portraying asylum seekers as terrorists who did not deserve to be taken care of by Bulgaria was orchestrated last autumn. Fortunately, this message did not work with the Bulgarian society who supported the10,000 asylum seekers who were not being provided with food or any assistance. I can fairly say that the Bulgarian population is really trying to help and support asylum seekers.
“The Bulgarian population is really trying to help and support asylum seekers”