Sofia, April 1, 2015/ Independent Balkan News Agency
By Clive Leviev-Sawyer of The Sofia Globe
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has called on Bulgaria and Turkey to investigate an incident in mid-March where two Iraqi men died at the land border between the two countries.
The UNHCR said that it continues to receive testimonies from people seeking international protection, who have been denied entry, have been “pushed back” or encountered violence at the European Union’s external borders.
It said that according to the information received, a group of 12 Iraqis belonging to the Yazidi minority, who were trying to enter Bulgaria from Turkey, were stopped by Bulgarian border guards. The Iraqis had their belongings seized and were badly beaten up.
The group scattered and two of the men, who had sustained severe injuries, died later of hypothermia on the Turkish side of the border. According to the reports, a third person who was travelling with the group was taken in a critical condition to a hospital in Edirne, after the Turkish Gendarmerie was alerted and carried out a search operation to locate the victims.
“UNHCR urges the authorities in Bulgaria and Turkey to investigate this grave incident. We are particularly disturbed by the accounts of brutality which may have contributed to the deaths of two people who, being members of the persecuted Yazidi community, were likely to have been refugees.”
Reports and testimonies gathered by UNHCR in 2014, indicate that people searching for international protection often attempted to cross the border into Bulgaria multiple times, but had to turn back because of bad weather, were abandoned by the people smugglers they had paid to take them across the border, or were intercepted by the Turkish authorities before they managed to cross the border, the UNHCR said.
Many, however, reported being denied entry or being “pushed back” by Bulgarian border guards.
“Push-backs” are not in conformity with Bulgaria’s obligations to admit asylum-seekers to their territory. The use of violence has also been reported and, in many cases, people say that their money and property were confiscated by border police, the UNHCR said,.
With few legal alternatives to enter the European Union, many people fleeing conflict and persecution are undertaking increasingly dangerous journeys and using smugglers to reach safety, the UN body said.
“It is deeply disturbing that people in search of international protection are being turned away, often with violence.”
EU member States at the external border need to ensure that these practices stop, and should conduct independent and transparent investigations into allegations of abuses and illegal practices in their border regions, the UNHCR said.
Bulgaria is planning to add a further 82km of razor wire fences to the existing 33km fence that was constructed in 2014 in response to an increase in the number of irregular arrivals, the majority of them from Syria.
Efforts to reduce the number of irregular arrivals and asylum-seekers in Bulgaria had a significant effect in 2014 with almost 50 per cent fewer arrivals than the previous year.
According to the Bulgarian authorities, more than 38 500 people attempted to cross irregularly the Bulgaria-Turkey border in 2014. Of these, about 6000, mostly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, reached Bulgaria. This is a significant drop in comparison to the 11 500 irregular arrivals (out of more than 16 700 attempts) registered in 2013.
The limited access to border posts, combined with the construction of more fences and “push-backs” are leaving asylum-seekers with very few options.
UNHCR said that it had received emergency calls from people, mostly Syrians, who walked for days in harsh weather in remote areas to try to reach Bulgaria.
Erecting fences and creating more barriers instead of providing additional legal avenues to reach safety in the EU pushes people in need of international protection into increasingly dangerous situations with, sometimes, fatal consequences.
Elsewhere, UNHCR has raised concerns over reports of border practices that might place refugees and migrants at risk, notably in Greece, where UNHCR has documented numerous accounts of “push-backs” at the land and sea borders with Turkey, especially in the last two years.
UNHCR said that it would address its recommendations to the new Greek government about suggested improvements on various refugee-related protection issues, including a management of the country’s borders that takes into account the protection needs of refugees and asylum seekers.
Separately, an item on the website of Human Rights Watch said that violence and summary returns at Bulgaria’s border with Turkey have been a serious concern since mid-2013.
“One year ago, Human Rights Watch documented 44 incidents involving at least 519 people in which Bulgarian border police apprehended and summarily returned people – mainly Syrians and Afghans – to Turkey, sometimes using violence.”
In doing so, Bulgaria is violating EU and international law by denying people access to the asylum procedure, and possibly violating the principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits returns of asylum seekers and refugees to places where their lives and freedoms would be threatened, HRW said.
Because Turkey has not agreed to every aspect of the Refugee Convention, it says it is not legally bound to accept refugees from non-European countries like Syria and Iraq.
Bulgarian authorities have denied all allegations of pushbacks, referring to them as “blatant lies.”
The European Commission sent a letter to Bulgaria – the first step in legal action – concerning allegations that it broke EU rules by pushing Syrians back to Turkey, but has since been silent on the issue, the item on HRW’s site said.
Human Rights Watch documented new evidence in August and September suggesting that violent pushbacks of asylum seekers and migrants were continuing on the Bulgaria-Turkey border.
“Ill-treatment and pushbacks of asylum seekers are illegal, wrong, and should not be tolerated by the EU,” HRW said.
The European Commission should hold member states accountable when they breach EU and international law. EU institutions should ensure that Bulgaria investigates allegations of abuses at its borders and holds responsible officials accountable for their actions, HRW said.