By Clive Leviev-Sawyer of the Sofia Globe
The United Nations office of the High Commission for Refugees has acknowledged the “significant efforts” made recently by the Bulgarian authorities and their partners to improve living conditions for asylum seekers in the country.
While planning to lift its January call to temporarily suspend the transfer of refugees from European countries back to Bulgaria (under the Dublin Regulation), the UN Office of the High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) emphasised on April 15 2014 that “serious gaps” in the system remain, and warned against transferring individuals or groups considered most vulnerable.
In the past three months, UNHCR noted improved conditions particularly in the Harmanli centre, a former military base near the Turkish border where refugees were living in tents just four months ago.
“Today, asylum-seekers living in the centres receive daily hot meals, are accommodated in renovated buildings or accommodation in the process of being renovated, with heating, and have access to health care,” the UN News Centre quoted UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming as telling a news conference in Geneva. Fleming added that “with more staff, all asylum-seekers have been registered and progress is being made on asylum decisions”.
However, the UN agency says that accommodation and sanitary conditions in two Sofia centres, Vrazdebhna and Voenna Rampa, remain insufficient.
“UNHCR is also concerned about the lack of identification, referral and support to individuals with specific needs; the barriers children face in accessing formal education; and the lack of a sustainable integration programme,” Fleming said.
Reiterating concerns expressed in January, the UN agency warned against measures implemented since November 2013 by the Bulgarian authorities to restrict access to the territory along the Turkish border. “These have resulted in a marked decrease in the number of arrivals since December 2013, and could be preventing people in need of international protection from entering and requesting asylum in Bulgaria,” Fleming said, according to the UN News Centre.
According to UNHCR, an increasing number of individuals have allegedly been forcibly expelled from Bulgarian territory without being able to apply for asylum, which has resulted in family separations in some cases.
UNHCR has received several reports of these alleged “push-backs” from Bulgaria concerning nationals of Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan, as well as Palestinians from Syria.
In 2013, a total of 7144 people sought asylum in Bulgaria, a sharp increase from an annual average of 1000 asylum-seekers in the past decade. The recent influx, mostly because of the Syrian conflict, has put significant pressure on an ill-prepared system.
Currently Bulgaria is hosting about 5500 asylum-seekers. About 63 per cent are from Syria, with about 2000 people from Afghanistan.
“UNHCR remains committed to working closely with the Bulgarian authorities, and other partners to address existing gaps and to continue the consolidation of the progress achieved,” Fleming said.