Sofia, February 15, 2016/Independent Balkan News Agency
By Clive Leviev-Sawyer of The Sofia Globe
Refugees entering Bulgaria through the Turkish border spend no more than a few hours in the country, or at most spend two or three days in the country, until finding a way to continue on to Western Europe, according to the head of Bulgaria’s State Agency for Refugees.
Refugee agency head Nikola Kazakov told daily Sega that mass departures from refugee centres in Bulgaria had been a trend for months.
Between August 2015 and the end of January 2016, 4102 refugees had absented themselves from the centres, and this number had increased further, Kazakov said.
Within a month, with the advent of spring, the flow of refugees is expected to increase.
The refugee and migrant crisis in Europe is on the agenda of a February 15 meeting of the Visegrad Four countries – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary – which is also being attended by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov.
The State Agency for Refugees and Bulgaria’s Interior Ministry describe a common practice in the country. Foreigners entering the country illegally are registered when they are caught. Then they say they want to apply for status and protection. The police drive them to Sofia to one of the centres of the refugees agency. From there, they often disappear the same day, before being registered again and the procedure for granting refugee status being opened.
The agency said that the length of stay of refugees in the distribution centre in Sofia’s Ovcha Kupel neighbourhood is no more than two or three days, sometimes a few hours.
Residents of the area said that in spite of the heavy police presence in the neighbourhood, cars continually picked up refugees and migrants and took them away, with it not being known where they were headed.
Because of the system at the centre that allows asylum-seekers to leave the centre by day and that obliges them to be there only at night, nothing stops them from escaping, the report said.
Trafficking rings were clearly operating successfully, the report said, noting the figures for those caught at the Turkish border and at the border with Serbia, while the refugee centres were half-empty.
The number of those who had deliberately left the centres to head West was swelling by the hundreds every week.
Meanwhile, the refugees agency was becoming a mere registrar of escapes.
“The proceedings for granting international protection often does not reach the stage where an application is considered on the merits because the proceedings are terminated due to (the applicants) leaving the centre and the inability for the candidates to be interviewed,” the agency said.
The profile of foreigners entering the country illegally was changing, going by Interior Ministry statistics.
Syrians no longer made up the largest number. Iraqis accounted for 60 per cent of the total from February 1 to 11, with Syrians second and Afghans third.
At the end of January, in Sofia there was only one refugee child attending school, an arrival with his father from Afghanistan.