Bulgaria Summarily Expells Asylum Seekers - Human Rights Watch Report
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 Tuesday.
According to the 76-page report, called "Containment Plan: Bulgaria's Pushbacks and Detention of Syrian and other Asylum Seekers and Migrants," the plan has been carried out in part by summarily pushing back Syrians, Afghans, and others as they irregularly cross the border from Turkey.
The document speaks of how in recent months Bulgarian border police have summarily returned people, who appear to be asylum seekers, to Turkey 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 centers, the report said.
Bulgaria has not been a host country for significant numbers of refugees on average registering about 1,000 asylum seekers per year in the past decade. The situation changed in 2013 when more than 11,000 people, over half of them fleeing Syria's deadly repression and war, lodged asylum applications. Despite ample early warning signs, Bulgaria was unprepared for the increase, Human Rights Watch claimed citing a February 5, 2014 report by the Interior Ministry saying that "Until mid-2013 Bulgaria was completely unprepared for the forecasted refugee flow."
Human Rights Watch slams Bulgaria's failure to provide new arrivals with basic humanitarian assistance in 2013, including adequate food and shelter at reception centers. The report also speaks of detention conditions and brutal treatment in detention centers, 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 recognized refugees.
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.
On November 6, Bulgarian government established a new policy to prevent irregular entry at the Turkish border, the press release of Human Rights Watch states. This "containment plan" entailed deploying an additional 1,500 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-kilometer stretch of the Turkish border.
Still, with the help of the European Union, the humanitarian situation in Bulgaria has improved in 2014, however this coincides with the pushback policy, a precipitous drop in arrivals of new asylum seekers, and a 27% decrease from the number of refugees the country was hosting in late 2013. 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," Bill Frelick, refugee rights program director at Human Rights Watch said. "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 Council of Ministers referred to their new policy as a "plan for the containment of the crisis." However, 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."
Some days before the Human Rights Watch report was released, Bulgaria's Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev said he was surprised by the claims on the country's immigration policies. Yovchev denied the allegations, and labeled them "blatant lies", which can be easily verified. As an example he said Bulgaria's border police is not carrying weapons with butts, hence it cannot beat the asylum seekers with butts, as per the claims in the report. Yovchev said the police does not carry tasers, so it cannot use them on asylum seekers.
"The larger part of the border is equipped with CCTV cameras and everything that is happening there is observed and recorded," Yovchev said. "The footage can be checked and I can guarantee that there is no violence."
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