By Clive Leviev – Sawyer of The Sofia Globe
Bulgaria has embarked on a “Containment Plan” to reduce the number of asylum seekers in the country, Human Rights Watch said in a report released officially on April 30.
The plan has been carried out in part by summarily pushing back Syrians, Afghans, and others as they irregularly cross the border from Turkey, Human Rights Watch said in its report, which Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev reportedly has described as “crap” while the allegations also have been rejected by Bulgaria’s State Agency for Refugees.
The 76-page report, “‘Containment Plan’: Bulgaria’s Pushbacks and Detention of Syrian and other Asylum Seekers and Migrants,” documents how in recent months Bulgarian border police, often using excessive force, have summarily returned people who appear to be asylum seekers to Turkey. The people have been forced back across the border without proper procedures and with no opportunity to lodge asylum claims.
Bulgaria should end summary expulsions at the Turkish border, stop the excessive use of force by border guards, and improve the treatment of detainees and conditions of detention in police stations and migrant detention centres, Human Rights Watch said in a media statement.
“Slamming the door on refugees is not the way to deal with an increase in people seeking protection,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights program director at Human Rights Watch. “The right way, simply, is for Bulgarian authorities to examine asylum seekers’ claims and treat them decently.”
In recent times, Bulgaria has not been a host country for significant numbers of refugees. On average, Bulgaria registered about 1000 asylum seekers a year in the past decade. That changed in 2013 when more than 11 000 people, more than half of them fleeing Syria’s deadly repression and war, lodged asylum applications.
Despite ample early warning signs, Bulgaria was unprepared for the increase. A February 5 2014 report by the Interior Ministry, quoted by Human Rights Watch, said, “Until mid-2013 Bulgaria was completely unprepared for the forecasted refugee flow.”
Human Rights Watch documented Bulgaria’s failure to provide new arrivals with basic humanitarian assistance in 2013, including adequate food and shelter at reception centres that often lacked heat, windows, and adequate plumbing.
Human Rights Watch also found poor detention conditions and brutal treatment in detention centres; inadequacies in asylum procedures, including long delays in registering asylum claims; shortfalls in its treatment of unaccompanied migrant children, including failure to appoint legal guardians; and an absence of viable programs to support and integrate recognised refugees.
On November 6, the Bulgarian government established a new policy to prevent irregular entry at the Turkish border.
This “containment plan” entailed deploying an additional 1500 police officers at the border, supplemented by a contingent of guest guards from other EU member states through the EU’s external border control agency, Frontex. Bulgaria also began building a fence along a 33-kilometre stretch of the Turkish border.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 177 refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in various locations in both Bulgaria and Turkey. Of these, 41 gave detailed accounts of 44 incidents involving at least 519 people in which Bulgarian border police apprehended and returned them to Turkey, in some instances using violence.
“Abdullah,” an Afghan asylum seeker interviewed in Turkey in January 2014, said that the Bulgarian border police began beating him immediately after they caught him and a few others, and showed Human Rights Watch interviewers his scars.
“After beating me, the police brought me over to their superior who pointed to his boot as if because of me his boot was dirty,” he said. “So he ordered the soldier to beat me. First, he beat me with his fist in my stomach and then with the butt of his gun on my back so I fell down, then he kicked my ribcage while I was lying down. One of my bones in my lower back is broken…. They kept beating my head and my back. First one soldier and then another. I tried to escape but they caught me and beat me even more. They even beat me as they were dragging me to the car. They put three of us on the back seat of the jeep. I wasn’t even thinking about pain, all I was worried about was my wife and child,” who had become separated from him as the police approached.
Abdullah said that the police drove for about 30 to 45 minutes, stopped, and then started walking: “While we were walking he kept hitting me with his stick. The walk was about 200 metres and I was beaten all the way. When we reached the border, the soldier showed the direction to Turkey.”
With the help of the European Union, the humanitarian situation in Bulgaria has improved in 2014, but this coincides with the pushback policy, a precipitous drop in arrivals of new asylum seekers, and a 27 per cent decrease from the number of refugees the country was hosting in late 2013, Human Rights Watch said.
The European Commission has launched infringement proceedings against Bulgaria, calling on it to answer allegations that it broke EU rules by summarily returning Syrian refugees.
“Reception conditions in Bulgaria have improved compared with the abysmal conditions we witnessed in late 2013,” Frelick said, as quoted in the Human Rights Watch statement.
“But these improvements are less impressive when seen in the context of Bulgaria’s efforts to prevent asylum seekers from lodging refugee claims, which violate the country’s refugee law obligations.”
The Bulgarian cabinet referred to their new policy as a “plan for the containment of the crisis.” But the migration “crisis” Bulgaria faced in 2013 should also be seen in context: In the first five weeks of 2014 – at a time when 99 asylum seekers succeeded in crossing from Turkey to Bulgaria – more than 20 000 Syrian refugees entered Turkey, the country to which Bulgaria was pushing back asylum seekers. Turkey is currently hosting more than 700 000 Syrians, according to UNHCR.
“Bulgaria, of course, is faced with a humanitarian challenge and its capacity to meet that challenge is limited,” Frelick said.
“Even with limited capacity, however, shoving people back over the border is no way to respect the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants.”
Bulgarian interior ministerYovchev called Human Rights Watch’s allegations of illegal immigrants abuse a shocking lie.
Yovchev, reacting after some local media broke the embargo on the release of the report, expresseds surprised that a reputable NGO could publish “false statements, outright lies and slander against Bulgaria”.
He denied that there had been any cases of violence against immigrants on the border with Turkey. CCTV system records everything that happens and can be checked, Yovchev said in an interview with local media.
Yovchev described the claims of the human rights watchdog as “outright lies”.
“Maybe some of the crap in the report would have been saved if the comments of the other party involved had been sought,” Yovchev said, citing the good assessments by Frontex, EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström and the latest report of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
The official release of the report on April 29 – notwithstanding the breaking of the embargo by some local reporters – came a day after it emerged that in the village of Rosovo, protests by residents had driven out three families of Syrian refugees just two days after the families, who had legal refugee status, had arrived in the village.