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News 16 Nov 17

EU Letter Highlights Failings in Bulgaria’s Asylum Policy

Alleged letter to Bulgarian authorities, leaked to BIRN, expresses European Commission’s concerns about the Balkan country’s treatment of refugees, Afghan nationals in particular.

Maria Cheresheva
Refugees. Archive photo: beta

BIRN has obtained a letter that the European Commission allegedly sent to the director of Bulgaria’s State Refugee Agency, SAR, and to the Deputy Interior Minister, Krasimir Tsipov, voicing Brussels’ concerns about major shortcomings in the country’s asylum system.

The letter, which the director of the Commission’s Migration and Protection Directorate Laurent Muschel, sent back on July 6, urges Bulgaria to improve its asylum procedures in several areas, including its protection of unaccompanied minors, and the reception, detention and integration of asylum seekers.

It also criticizes lack of access to legal aid for asylum seekers and the treatment of Afghan nationals in particular, who received notably fewer awards of asylum status in Bulgaria compared to the other EU member states in 2017.

Asked to verify the authenticity of the letter, a Commission spokesperson told BIRN that the institution does not comment on leaked documents.

"The Commission is in close contact with the Bulgarian authorities to help them ensure that progress is being made in improving their asylum system, including better reception conditions. With regards to EU support, the Commission has made available significant amounts of EU funding while operational support is being provided by the EU Asylum Agency (EASO) to help Bulgaria in addressing the current challenges", the spokesperson added.

Bulgaria’s SAR and Interior Ministry also did not respond to BIRN’s queries about the authenticity and content of the document by the time of publication.

Many NGOs have regularly voiced concerns about the situation of child refugees caught in limbo in Bulgaria.

The letter obtained by BIRN suggests that there are not enough representatives and social workers to work with unaccompanied minors, and that they not been trained adequately.

Concerns are raised also about the lack of specialized safe accommodation for under-age asylum seekers and the state’s practice of allocating accompanied minors to adults who are not family members, which “seems to underestimate the issue at stake for the safety and the protection of unaccompanied minors”.

“The current situation of the unaccompanied minors in the ‘separate areas’ in the existing centres is, in the Commission’s view, not appropriate due to a reported lack of adequate supervision, of adequate security and of staff,” the Commission adds, urging Bulgaria to take measures that “respond to the urgency of the situation”.

The absence of identification and care for vulnerable persons, as well as poor conditions in the closed centres, where migrants and asylum seekers are often detained, are also noted.

The Commission expresses readiness to assist Bulgaria in the field of integration, “after several years of very limited actions” from the Bulgarian authorities.

“This is essential not just for the wellbeing of the persons concerned and for Bulgarian society, but also to alter the current dynamic of onward movement of asylum-seekers and beneficiaries of international protection to other Member States,” Muschel allegedly noted.

The head of the European Commission’s Migration and Protection Directorate, Laurent Muschel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Euranet Plus

The letter notes that the percentage of Afghans obtaining asylum is “strikingly low” in Bulgaria compared to other EU member states; only 2.5 per cent in 2016, compared to an EU average of 56 per cent.

“Afghan nationals are apparently often detained for lengthy periods and to a considerably greater extent than occurs for other nationalities,” the letter adds.

NGOs say that the concerns allegedly expressed by the Commission in its letter are well-founded.

“Amnesty International found numerous problems in the way Bulgaria treats unaccompanied minors in the country. The challenges range from the gaps in initial identification of unaccompanied children as they are crossing the border and the inability of authorities to properly ascertain their specific vulnerability or their family situation”, Jelena Sesar, a researcher in Amnesty International, told BIRN.

“What you have in Bulgaria is a systemic chaos. No single agency is responsible for unaccompanied children”, she asserted.

Sesar said the low percentage of Afghan citizens obtaining asylum in Bulgaria was “indicative of how Afghans are treated throughout the process in Bulgaria – from the moment they enter the country to the last instance of their asylum claims.

“Afghans are not only disproportionally represented in the detention centres and tend to remain there longer than other groups, but the reception centres that accommodate Afghans are kept in the direst conditions,” she added.

“The problem is that Bulgarian authorities are treating Afghan refugees and asylum-seekers as a group that is unlikely qualify for the refugee or asylum status,” the researcher added.

She noted that the conditions in the camps in Bulgaria remain dire even though they operated in 2017 at far less than full capacity.

“From the basics, such as hygiene and nutrition, to the medical, translation and social services that ought to be available to the persons staying in the camps, Bulgaria ranks low in comparison with most EU countries,” Sesar maintained.

“Resources are not an obstacle and cannot be an excuse for inaction. Bulgaria has received 160 million euros from various EU funds to address immigration challenges”, she added.

Mathias Fiedler, from Border Monitoring Bulgaria, raised specific concerns about the widespread detention of asylum seekers and migrants by the Bulgarian authorities.

“Detention practices happen very randomly. Some nationalities have to stay in detention after being caught by the border police for months without any reason,” he said.

Statistics supplied by SAR show that the number of asylum seekers in Bulgaria has dropped significantly. By October 26, a total of 1,031 people were accommodated in state reception centres, filling them to just 20 per cent capacity. Nearly half of them, 413, were children, 61 of whom were unaccompanied by a relative.

The article has been ammended on Thursday with a comment from the European Commission. 

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