Bulgaria's Turn to Reject Immigrants
by Maurizio Molinari
West - Welfare Society Territory
They have long been rejected and discriminated against by many other EU states but now it's the turn of the Bulgarians to protest against the arrival of immigrants and refugees in their own country. In recent weeks, Sofia's tough rejection policy has been criticised by international human rights organisations.
But to understand what is happening today on the border between Bulgaria and Turkey, you need to take a step back. In December 2012, Greece built a 10.6 km wall, at a cost of about million, along the border with Turkey. It started a massive operation to expel refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from Syria. The policy has also been documented by a recent report from Pro Asyl, an organisation that is part of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE). The result has been that many of the thousands of refugees who would previously have entered Europe through Turkey and Greece have changed route and now choose to cross the Bulgarian border. But the government in Sofia has reacted and, although it has not yet admitted it officially, it has started to implement a policy of ruthless expulsions.
"From August to November 2013, about 2,000 refugees and asylum seekers were entering Bulgaria each week," says Ileana Savova, director of the Helsinki Committee Programme for Refugees and Migrants in the Bulgarian capital. "In November, this number fell to about 100 a week, which coincided with the deployment of 1,400 police officers on the border with Turkey. Although the government denies that it is rejecting refugees at the border, it is documented by these facts."
According to official statistics, in 2013 Bulgaria received 9,325 asylum applications, of which 7,144 were processed in order to start administrative procedures. However, the conditions of these thousands of people are considerably less than ideal. Until 25 January 2014, almost 5,000 asylum seekers were housed in refugee camps, of which 3,381 were from Syria. A further 4,421 asylum seekers have not been housed in Bulgaria, while many thousands more continued their journey to other EU countries.
"The government in Sofia denies it is turning people away, saying that asylum seekers can easily go to the official border crossing to make their request," says Savova. "But it is obvious that this is impossible, because traffickers use border crossings as far as possible from customs authorities and the police. If we talk about the conditions in which asylum seekers are accommodated, the system is collapsing, and the housing is totally inadequate: with dilapidated buildings, a lack of medical care and food, it is a disaster. Maybe things will improve in the coming months, we must recognise that the government is trying, but it is not an easy situation."
A recent debate at the European Parliament confirmed Bulgaria's difficulties in handling the influx of refugees and asylum seekers from Turkey. MEPs and the Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmstrom, asked Sofia do more to guarantee that fundamental rights and dignity are respected for those who arrive in the country. In addition, on 10 January, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) asked EU member states not to send asylum seekers to Bulgaria by applying the Dublin Convention, because it could not guarantee adequate reception conditions.
"Our first concern is the number of asylum seekers that are not registered, because if the application process is not initiated, they can't benefit from asylum seekers' rights," concludes Savova. "Also, we want the government to give all asylum seekers appropriate and accurate information and legal assistance, so that these thousands of people know what they can ask for and what they can expect. Finally, particular attention must be given to the hundreds of cases of unaccompanied minors, who must be put in custody immediately and have legal protection."