Summary of the national legislation on refugees
Bulgarian national legislation on the issue of refugees and asylum seeks has long been criticized by international human rights groups and NGO’s. In 2014 Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report for 2013 accusing the Bulgarian government of embarking on a “containment plan” to reduce the number of asylum seekers in the country which allegedly involved “pushing back” Syrians, Afghans and others as they attempted to irregularly cross the border from Turkey. The policy was established in November of 2014 and entailed deploying an additional 1500 police officers at the Turkish border, supplemented by a contingency of guest guards from other EU member states through the EU’s external border control agency, Frontex. During this period the 33-kilometer fence was built. The existence of such a policy was also supported by reports from other prominent NGO’s including Amnesty International who claim that an official investigation was initiated in just one case.
The report allegedly documents how Bulgarian border police have summarily returned people who appear to be asylum seekers to Turkey. These individuals have often been “excessively” forced back across the border without the use of proper procedures and with no opportunity to formally request asylum. Prior to 2013, the average number of registered asylum seekers was around 1,000 per year for approximately a decade. Since the outbreak and Spread of the Syrian War more than 11,000 people lodged asylum requests with the Bulgarian government. The HRW report goes on to claim that Bulgaria was ill prepared for this surge despite what it refers to as “ample early warning.” In February 2014 a report by the Interior Ministry stated that “Until mid-2013 Bulgaria was completely unprepared for the forecasted refugee flow.”
HRW also criticize Bulgaria’s failure to provide new arrivals with basic levels of humanitarian assistance in 2013, including a lack of adequate food and shelter at reception centers which allegedly often lacked heat, windows or adequate plumbing. The treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in these ‘detention centers’ are also criticized as is alleged ‘brutal’ treatment, inadequate asylum procedures which included long delays in registering asylum claims, shortcomings in the treatment of unaccompanied migrant children and an absence of viable programs to support and integrate recognised refugees. Bulgaria’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, Tsvetlin Yovchev, responded to the report in writing by claiming that it was largely incorrect. Mr. Yochev claimed that since the beginning of increased migration to Bulgaria that the government has applied an open and transparent policy to all its partners including other EU member states, The European Commission, The European Parliament and UNCHR. Mr. Yovhcev referred to many of the allegations made in the HRW report as “lies” and stated that the Bulgarian border police are fully trained in compliance with all EU and Schengen standards which includes recognition and respect of fundamental rights and points to the border security system and its ability to guarantee that any possible act of violence can be identified and recorded.
Mr. Yovchev also notes that Bulgaria has made significant efforts to respond to constructive criticisms of its policies towards guaranteeing the rights and security of refugees while also balancing this with the rights and security concerns of Bulgarian citizens on the other hand. Additionally Mr Yovchev also claims that statistical data clearly demonstrates that a significant number of persons entering Bulgaria had no grounds to seek international protection and are economic migrants coming from a country which already provided them with protection and shelter. Strict controls of the border applied by Bulgarian law enforcement is said to be the result of “identification of specific threats to the security of Bulgaria and the European Union e.g. persons related to terrorist or extremist movements, as well as perpetrators of serious crimes.” (Yovchev, 2014)
Refugee life in Bulgaria
The total number of applications for international protection submitted in Bulgaria over the past 10 years (2006-2015) is 45,131, with 20,391 being submitted only during 2015. 10,192 people were granted refugee status and 6,365 were granted humanitarian status (subsidiary protection). The top 5 countries they are coming from are the Syrian Arab Republic, Afghanistan and Iraq. The main reasons why they have left their country of origin include attempting to escape civil wars, fear of persecution, violence and/or death, as well because of economic hardships.
In Amnesty International’s 2014/15 report on the state of the world’s human rights the organization claimed that recognised refugees in Bulgaria faced problems accessing education, housing, health care and other public services. It is also noted that in August, the Bulgarian government rejected a plan prepared by the State Agency for Refugees and the Ministry of Labour for the implementation of the National Integration Strategy adopted by parliament earlier in the year. According to Bulgaria’s State Agency for Refugees, in September, only 98 of 520 registered refugee children were enrolled in school due to the Schools Act which requires new pupils to pass an exam in the Bulgarian language and other subjects. A draft law on Asylum and Refugees, which was aimed at ensuring unhindered access to primary education for refugee children, was not adopted due to the fall of the government.
A lack of proper access to education, housing, health care and other public services has a significant impact on the quality of life enjoyed by recognised refugees in Bulgaria. In addition to these practical issues, the prevalence of instances of xenophobia or discrimination from specific sections of Bulgarian society contributes to an often unwelcoming environment. A high profile example of this environment comes from The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), an independent non-governmental organization for human rights. The BHC claimed that it faced a tax inspection prompted by the far right group VMRO-BND, as well as intimidation and harassment by far right groups due to its criticism of the government’s human rights record and in particular the treatment of asylum seekers along with Bulgaria’s alleged failure to prevent and address hate crimes. On September 12th, a far right political party, the Bulgarian National Union is said to have organized a rally under the slogan “Let’s ban BHC!” The rally concluded outside BHC offices and participants are said to have verbally abused staff and visitors while also calling for a ban of all NGO’s in Bulgaria. It is also claimed that police officers at the rally did not intervene to prevent harassment or verbal assaults and the Ministry of the Interior subsequently denied any harassment had taken place during the protest.
One of the most recurring factors affecting the daily lives of refugees and asylum seekers which consistently presented itself during research was the inadequacies within Bulgaria’s legal framework in terms of the prevention of hate crimes. In the second half of 2013 several violent attacks on ethnic and religious minorities, including migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, were reported by NGO’s and the media and highlighted the shortcomings of current Bulgarian legislation in the prevention and investigation of these crimes. In March of 2014 the European Court of Refugees considering the case of Abdu v. Bulgaria and concluded that authorities has failed to thoroughly investigate the racist motive in an attack on a Sudanese national in 2003. Amnesty International claims that between July and September it researched 16 cases of alleged hate crimes against individuals and properties and found that the hate motive was investigated in just one of these cases by authorities.
On September 25th Amnesty International released a Public Statement entitled ‘Bulgaria: Legal Framework and practice on hate crimes fall short of international human rights standards and situation of refugees and asylum seekers remains inadequate.’ In the report Amnesty flagged major concerns related to the limitations of Bulgaria’s criminal code in such instances. Amnesty also alleges that recent research demonstrates that Bulgaria’s criminal justice system fails to ensure thorough investigation and prosecution of racist or xenophobic hate crimes. The NGO claims that in many cases: “discriminatory violence against Roma, Muslims, Jews and non-traditional religious groups, and their property, is currently prosecuted under criminal law provisions covering ‘hooliganism’ rather than specific provisions covering ‘hate crimes’… which in turn hampers access to effective remedy for victims of racially motivated attacks.”
As a result of both the political, legal and social environment, life as a refugee in Bulgaria presents difficulties in day to day living on several key fronts. Primarily, the main concern for refugees or asylum seekers entering the European Union through Bulgaria is the current administrative and policy holes in legislation which may deny them their fundamental rights, as described in the previous section. It is a situation which is largely unimaginable to many who have not lived through the process. In the wake of leaving their homeland due to some life threatening situation, bureaucratic hindrances create additional stress and suffering to individuals, who in many cases are trying to cope with the trauma of having their entire lives uprooted.
It is important to understand at a very basic and universal level the human impact of such a political and social environment. An article published in German publication (Andreev and Vaksberg, 2015) claims that in an Arabic language “Refugee Handbook” that Bulgaria ranks has first amongst those countries which asylum seekers should seek to avoid, citing the prevalence of xenophobia and Islamophobia. The article offers the account of an unnamed Iraqi refugee who was interviewed by Pro Asyl, a German human rights organization (Andreev and Vaksberg, 2015):
We were attacked by a group of five Bulgarians. I was able to escape, but my friend wasn’t. The Bulgarians threw him to the ground. Four of them stood on his arms and legs while the fifth jumped up and down on him like a trampoline. The attackers didn’t stop until a car pulled up and the headlights scared them away. My friend was badly beaten and suffered countless broken bones all throughout his body. They threw another Iraqi refugee from a two-and-a-half-meter high bridge (8 1/2-foot) after they stabbed him. Now he has partial paralysis and cannot move his legs normally.
The article also claims that the majority of refugees have been treated poorly by the Bulgarian authorities as well as by the general populations with one narrative around refugees being especially prevalent, that they make up stories of mistreatment to get further west, faster (Andreev and Vaksberg, September 10th 2015). Sociologist, Shivko Georgiev claims that politicians “simply do not care” about the issue and sociologist Andrey Raytchev claims that refugees have been avoiding Bulgaria due to what is perceived as Bulgarian hostility towards refugees (Andreev and Vaksberg, 2015). Raytchev claims that Bulgarians often see refugees and asylum seekers as simply another form of the much maligned ‘gypsy’ identity which has an extremely negative connotation in the country (Andreev and Vaksberg, 2015). Another popular narrative, and one prevalent across the EU, is that the majority of asylum seekers or refugees are economic migrants not fleeing some terrible harsh or life threatening situation but looking for a free ride on the backs of European taxpayers. The fact that this narrative is widely accepted underlines a severe, simplistic and inaccurate understanding of the current refugee crisis in Europe which defies all logical and factual information and feeds into commonly repeated stereotypes traditionally associated with the ‘other’ around the globe, though various time periods. Ironically, a version of this narrative was prevalent in the UK, Ireland and other western European countries when Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union in 2007 (Andreev and Vaksberg, 2015).
The political and social realities of the Cold War in conjunction with this perception of ‘foreign’ gypsies have left a deep imprint in discourses on Bulgarian national identity. Complicating matters further still is Bulgaria’s historical relationship with the Ottoman Empire and discourses around the Turkish “yolk” which continue to contribute to the construction of particular types of national identity and more importantly the perception of Muslims. Some historical context on how these discourses have influenced policy is helpful. Between 1985 and 1989 the so-called Revival Process involved the forceful assimilation of Bulgaria’s Muslim minority by changing their Turkish names to Bulgarian ones and was enacted under the communist government of Todor Zhivkov. Those who refused were exiled to Turkey and during 1989, in some areas with large ethnic Turkish populations there were violent clashes and fatalities (Büchsenschütz, 2000).
The legacy of Bulgarian history and accepted discourses around national identity which legitimize these particular views of the ‘other’ create an atmosphere of fear and violence for those seeking refuge. As a result we see generalized descriptions of the experience of being a refugee in Bulgaria by those such as Mr. A., to Pro Asyl: “Life in Bulgaria is hell. My entire stay in Bulgaria was marked by suffering, abuse and humiliation. Neither the Bulgarian authorities, nor the Bulgarian people were good to the refugees.”
This kind of daily life is not restricted to those of the Muslim faith. On September 17th, Al Jazeera America published a piece on the day to day difficulties of those seeking refuge in Bulgaria and discuss the case of Noel Kouaho, a 43 year old who journeyed from Côte d’Ivoire over a two year period and wound up sleeping in a park across from an overcrowded refugee center in Ovcha Kupel on the outskirts of Sofia. It is claimed that within Bulgaria’s refugee community the park was known as the Hotel Ritz and Mr Kouaho spend two week there during winter without shelter or blankets with frostbite claiming five toes on his right foot and two toes on his left. At this point a volunteer doctor amputated the toes and pushed authorities to give Kouaho a bed inside the refugee center. Mr Kouaho is quoted as claiming that: “There are no good conditions in Bulgaria for living. I get my papers, I get my freedom, and then I am leaving. There is no work, no help, no money. Everyone is leaving here.” Added to the issue of social and political perceptions of refugees are also economic realities. As the European Union’s poorest country and with one of its weakest economies dogged by corruption, the average monthly salary is approximately €370 with employment estimated at around 10 per cent. Available labour jobs are few and far between and many Bulgarians themselves travel elsewhere in Europe to find better paying work. Additional difficulties include the language barrier, as previously discussed above asylum seekers and migrants have the right to attend schools but classes are in Bulgarian and the government does not provide free language classes.
On the outskirts of Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, the refugee centre of Ovcha Kupel houses over 700 foreign nationals, most of them individuals or families fleeing the turmoil in Syria and Afghanistan. In 2013, 11,606 refugees entered Bulgaria, reportedly five times more than the country was used to dealing with. For a while Bulgaria struggled to handle the influx, setting up new centres and retro-fitting long-abandoned communist-era buildings in an attempt to house them all. International NGOs criticised the country’s inadequate preparation, which left many sleeping in tents through the winter of 2013–14, and while things have improved markedly, the number of refugees still remains high.
Between January and the beginning of June 2015, a total of 3,860 irregular third-country nationals entered Bulgaria, according to the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior, of which almost 2,000 came from Syria alone. The construction of a fence along the country’s border with Turkey has cut the number of new arrivals dramatically, but the decision to build the fence in the first place, with its central purpose of keeping out those fleeing often life-threatening situations in their home countries, has been controversial.
Few of those in the refugee centres in Bulgaria were planning to seek asylum in the country, a place most knew little about, but were instead stopped by border officers or police while transiting through the country on route to Germany, Sweden and other countries in Western Europe, where they hoped to begin new lives away from the fear and destruction back home.
While being processed, asylum seekers in Bulgaria are given basic shelter, optional vocation training and two meals a day. In Ovcha Kupel, six people are assigned to each small room, with families mostly kept all together. In most cases they plan to leave Bulgaria as soon as possible and don’t see the point in trying to learn the language.
‘Most of the refugees don’t want to stay in Bulgaria. They don’t learn the language, and without that they won’t find a job or make a life for themselves,’ says Nadezhda Todorovska, head of social welfare at the Bulgarian Red Cross. ‘Over 90 per cent don’t want to stay in Bulgaria. If they don’t want to stay here how do you integrate them?’
Instead, many refugees spend their days waiting for the official papers that would mean they’re able to move farther into the European Union.
Bulgaria operates six reception centers, with a total of 5,130 beds, but today the centers are currently around 70 to 80 percent of their capacity.
“Now, barely anyone wants to stay in Bulgaria,” Gospodin Gospodinov, a government caseworker at Harmanli said, his desk strewn with refugee claims. “Some wait for our decision, while others don’t, and travel on illegally.”
Prior to 2013, Bulgaria saw an average of 1,000 illegal migrants annually cross its border with Turkey. But in the summer of 2013, that number multiplied exponentially. Hundreds were crossing each day, mostly Syrian refugees escaping their country’s brutal four-year conflict. Afghans, Iraqis and Africans also arrived seeking refuge from war, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant armed group, and political oppression.
While other eastern European countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have balked at accepting more aylum seekers, Bulgaria announced last week that it would accept a new quota system proposed by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Bulgaria’s migrant numbers are just a fraction of the numbers now coming to Greece and Italy. In the first eight months of 2015, Bulgaria processed 10,600 asylum requests.
Bulgarians are struggling in one of the Europe’s weakest economies, which is also rife with corruption. The average monthly salary hovers around $400, and unemployment is about 10 percent. There are few available labor jobs, and many Bulgarians travel elsewhere in Europe to find work in areas like construction and domestic labor.
Then there is the added difficulty for migrants to learn the local language, Bulgarian, which is essential to social integration. While refugees have the right to attend state schools, the Bulgarian government does not provide free language classes.
The country hastily created basic facilities to accommodate the asylum seekers, beefed up the number of border police and erected a fence along the most porous part of the border with Turkey. It implemented a more streamlined system for processing asylum applications, and attempted to track down smugglers trafficking refugees in and out of the country.
The government’s efforts were effective in the sense that the country was able to meet the minimum requirements of the European Union’s guidelines on handling migrants. About 1,500 migrants are registered as crossing the border in September, though hundreds more avoided being registered, according to statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), so they could seek asylum in more prosperous European countries.
Life is hard for the refugees who forgo the temptation to try moving further into Europe. There is temporary housing in refugee centers made from converted, former Communist Party buildings or dilapidated schools, and refugees receive about 135 Bulgarian levs, or $78 a family, per month, according to Tzvetko Tzankovski, the director of Refugee Support Group, a local charity.
Once migrants receive asylum, they are supposed to move out and find their own housing, a difficult feat for refugees who often have no job prospects. Many landlords are also unwilling to rent to refugees and there are no government-sponsored integration programs, he said.
While hundreds of migrants arrive each week, just as many leave the country, typically smuggled over the border to Serbia, where they try to make their way to more prosperous and generous countries in Europe.
As of September 2015, about 6,800 refugees have come in illegally, meaning they didn’t apply for asylum; while just over 5,000 have illegally left Bulgaria without being processed at a border checkpoint, according to the UNHCR. 
On the 1st of January 2016, new amendments of the Law on the Asylum and Refugees (LAR) came into force. Basically, this change allows the State Agency for Refugees (SAR) “to place asylum seekers in closed centers“, impose curfews for already existing open facilities or restrictions on the movement of people that live inside them – this was already published by the State Gazette on October the 16th in 2015. The new regime allows the “detention of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers“, as well. Valeria Ilareva, from the Bulgarian Foundation for Access to Rights (FAR), pointed out that „any detention of asylum seekers exposes them to a high risk of re-traumatisation(…)“.
The numbers of arrested migrants were increasingly high in 2015. About 1,700 applications (for demanding asylum) were submitted in December – 20,391 were registered by the SAR during the whole year. Nevertheless, only about one third of the full capacity in open refugee centers were recently occupied with people seeking refuge. Many of the registered people made their way further to other European countries. The LAR was changed by the end of the year with a new amendment that justifies a rejection of the asylum seeker, without any interview. Radostina Pavlova, from the “Center for Legal Aid – Voice in Bulgaria“ (CLA), warned that this will increase “the number of undocumented persons who are failed refugee claimants and are a subject to detention“.
Most of the refugees, crossing via Bulgaria, arrive in Dimitrovgrad, a little town, that is 4 km from the Serbian-Bulgarian Border and 60m away from Sofia. They have to register at a camp, that is managed by the Serbian border police. Registered people have to leave the country within three days. Some are walking days before they finally arrive at the police station. Taxi Drivers are waiting in front and offer a ride to Belgrade for 200 Euro. Usually they buy a bus ticket to Belgrade for 25 Euro, money that is sometimes provided by volunteers. 
The legal process
The Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees (SAR) is the national authority which makes decisions on first instance asylum applications. SAR is an administration ranked as a Ministry which is officially answerable to the Bulgarian government. In practice however, the budget of SAR is allocated through the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and as such is dependent on the decisions of the MOI when submitting requests for additional and/or emergency funding. SAR decides on individual application for international protection by wither recognising or refusing refugee status or grant/refusing humanitarian status or what is referred to as subsidiary protection. SAR also has an advisory role to the government in cases where it decides whether to apply temporary protection to a specific group in the case of a mass influx of asylum seekers who flee from war-like situations or country’s where abuses of human rights and indiscriminate violence are common practice.
Current legislation covering asylum seekers and refugees are enshrined in The Law on Asylum and Refugees (LAR) which sets a three month time-limit on an asylum application admitted to the regular procedure (Law on Asylum and Refugees, Article 75 ). LAW also requires that within two months of the beginning of the ‘regular procedure’, at least one eligibility interview is conducted with the asylum seeker which allows the interviewer to draft a proposal for a decision on that particular asylum application. The steps for the application review are as follows. The application should first be assessed in terms of its eligibility for refugee status. If the decision is negative then the need for subsidiary protection on account of general risk to the applicant’s human rights should be considered and decided on. The interviewer’s decision is then referred to the decision-maker, who can take another month to consider the application. If evidence required to take a decision is insufficient, the law allows for the initial three month deadline to be extended by another three months at most. In theory this means that SAR provides for a maximum of six months to decide by following the regular procedure.
It should be noted that determination deadlines are indicative and not mandatory, as such; if the deadlines are exceeded then the validity of the decision is not affected. While in the past, the asylum procedure generally lasted between four and six months, with some cases lasting as long as twelve months. Due to the steady and rapid increase of applications in 2014 (Asylumineurope.org) SAR sought to implement long term solutions to cope with asylum registration and status decisions as such SAR staff numbers were increased. Since the majority of those seeking asylum in Bulgaria are Syrian nationals, the SAR applied a prima facie approach which assessed this application with priority under the determination of being “manifestly well-founded.” As a result status determination procedures were shortened to an average duration of up to six months. Proposed amendments to the law have included extending the two three month time periods to six months, plus another nine months respectively, with a maximum first instance decision time limit of 21 months. These draft provisions were criticized by NGO’s by claiming that if adopted the proposed extension of determination time-limits would lower the present national procedural standards and prolong without any objective necessity the time of legal insecurity for asylum seekers, creating the conditions for extortion and corrupt practices. In the event of a negative decision, the appeal and court proceedings can add an additional 12 more months. If the court reverts the first instance decision back, SAR has fourteen days to issue a new decision, complying with the court’s instructions on the application of the law. SAR has continually ignored this 14 day deadline and in some cases has even rejected the asylum application despite the court’s instructions. Where there are repeated appeal procedures against the second negative decision, this can result in an extension of the asylum procedure which can extend to over two years.
In 2014 the law was changed to distribute decisions related to regular procedures and the first instance of appeal among regional administrative courts. This was done in order to attempt to reduce the workload of the Administrative Court of Sofia, which had been responsible for handling all Dublin appeals as well as appeals in the regular procedure as the first instance of appeal. the amendment did not however succeed in significantly redistributing cases among the national courts as the majority of asylum seekers reside in reception centers or at external addresses in Sofia and Harmanli, which means that Sofia and Haskovo regional administrative courts continue to the ones who deal with the majority of appeals against negative first instance determinations.
In August 2015, draft amendments were referred to the national parliament which sought to create a new type of fast track processing of applications as an admissibility phase prior to registration, documentation and determination on substance of these applications. The draft also puts forward a set of criteria to determine the admissibility of all subsequent claims within a time-limit of 14 days, according to which, if a decision on admissibility is not issues within 14 days then the application should be automatically considered as admissible and referred for registration. If the application is considered inadmissible then the determination procedure should not be started and the applicant is not registered and documented. The aim of the draft proposal is to limit the possible misuse of the asylum system by chain-filing multiple applications without presenting any new documents, facts or circumstances but for the sole goal of granting a temporary document to an asylum seeker for the duration of the application and status determination process.
The personal interview is also required by law for asylum seekers who were admitted to the regular procedure and each individual should be interviewed at least once on the issues of the circumstances and facts of their applications. Any decisions made without that interview process are not in accordance with the law, unless for medically established reasons such as insanity or mental disorder. The presence of an interpreter ensuring interpretation into a language which the individual seeking asylum understands is mandatory under national legislation. The law also provides for a gender sensitive approach as interviews can be conducted by an interviewer and interpreter of the same sex as the individual upon request. Indeed all asylum seekers are alleged asked specifically which option they would prefer in this instance. Training of interpreters and monitoring on application of Interpreters’ Code of Conduct are not applied in practice and as a result the statements of asylum seekers are often summarized or the interpreter offers comments on the statements authenticity or likelihood.
Interpreters in all key languages are said to be available in theory, however from January 2015 the SAR failed to secure funding for interpretation services during asylum procedures, as such interviewers were encourage by management to conduct interviews in any other available language, even when in some cases the level of the individual asylum seeker’s knowledge of that language may have been poor or non-existent. SAR itself was in debt for the cost of interpretation fees due as of November 2014 and on May 29th 2015 the Bulgarian government signed with the European Commission an Urgent Measures Agreement, which allocated €4.1 million to Bulgaria to be used over a 12 month period for translation and interpretation services and other measures which should improve the condition of reception centers which refugees and asylum seekers were housed in. Further to this, financial support for immediate interpretation services was also provided by the UNCHR through the Bulgarian Red Cross. However, by the end of September 2015, the SAR was unable to put in place the necessary institutional arrangements to pay the accumulated interpretation fees. In September 2015 the last remaining in place interpreters stopped working until they received their due payment and interpretation available to asylum seekers during the determination period remained irregular and unsecured for a large part of the year. This also resulted in a significant slowing of applications processing.
Staff members of the SAR are said to be trained in interviewing, case assessment and preparing a draft decision on individual applications. Audio recording of an interview is available and equipment is available in all interviewing rooms, yet in practice the interviewers do not use the equipment and systematically attempt to convince asylum seekers that it is not necessary. As a result, audio recording of interviews is rare despite the fact that the UNCHR and NGO’s have repeatedly insisted that it is a solid safeguard against malpractice and corruption and stated that SAR should include audio recording as a priority in its strategic objectives (State Agency for Refugees, Strategic objectives, 2012). The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee found in 2014 that in 100% of the monitored cases asylum seekers were presented by the case-worker with a standard declaration to consent to not having the interview audio-recorded without being given explanations about its advantages. The following year, 2015, interviewers began using audio-recording more frequently with the intention of making the practice standard. In practice, however, almost all interviews continue to be summarily recorded in writing and that most of these transcripts are not read and/or interpreted to the asylum seeker and are simply presented for signing. The result is the unfortunate occurrence where an interview report is created and printed immediately after the end of the interview and presented to the individual asylum seeker to sign without any review process or opportunity to make corrections where necessary. As such any possible inaccuracies cannot be addressed until the court of appeal and revision of negative decisions. Court expertise expenses however have to be met by applicants which in practice often creates an additional barrier for the applicant.
In a mid-year Project Performance Report from the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (July,2015) it was found that safeguards for asylum seekers’ statements during interviews to ensure these were properly recorded, continue to be largely ignored. In 70% of monitored cases the protocols from eligibility interviews were either not read and/or not interpreted for the asylum seekers before being signed. These practices create the conditions for the manipulation of the information in the protocol and prevent asylum seekers from checking whether their statements have been accurately written. It also prevents applicants from understanding what factors will be taken into account when the asylum claim is being decided and assessed. BHC also found that audio-recording is still applied only sporadically and mainly in reception centers in Sofia (Voenna Rampa shelter), Banya and Pastogot transit center. In other facilities such as those in Ovcha Kupel, Vrazhdebna and Harmali, case workers are said to avoid tape-recording at any cost, including manipulating asylum seekers into refusing consent. In only 70% of monitored cases asylum seekers were provided with introductory information on procedures, their rights and obligations. In cases where evidence is submitted by asylum seekers (14% or 27 monitored cases) only two were properly collected. 49% of decisions were taken with a delay of a month or two, while in 51% of cases decisions were taken within legal guidelines. Country of origin (COI) data on the applications was also an area of key concern. COI data was either irrelevant to the facts and circumstances of a particular case or not the kind which would support the findings within the eligibility decision in 55% of monitored cases.
A negative decision in terms of the regular procedure on the merits of the asylum application can be appealed within 12 days of notification. This time limit has generally been sufficient for rejected asylum seekers to seek legal advice as well as prepare and appeal the decision within the legal deadline. The SAR is obliged to provide information to rejected asylum seekers as to where and how they can receive legal aid in such an event. Bulgarian law provides for two appeal instances in the regular procedure. Appeal procedures are only judicial in that the law does not provide an administrative review of asylum determination decisions and both appeals before the 1st and 2nd appeal courts have a suspensive effect. The first appeal goes before a regional administrative court where the respondent party, in this case SAR, is located and in the place where the appealing party resides. The 1st appeal involves a full review of the case, both on the facts and the points of law. Asylum seekers are questioned in the public hearing as to the reasons they have applied for asylum, decisions are published and also served personally to the appellant. In cases where the 1st appeal decision is negative, asylum seekers can bring their case before the 2nd and final appeal court, the Supreme administrative court, but only with respect to points of law. Both appeal courts are required to issue their decisions within one month. This deadline is, however, indicative and not mandatory and as such is often not observed. The average duration of an appeal procedure before the court at both judicial instances is 15 months or 18 months in more complex cases.
Finally, in 2013 national legislation sponsored under the state budget concerning legal aid was amended to introduce mandatory legal aid for all asylum seekers at all stages of the status determination procedure (SAR, Information Notes). Legal aid is provided under the condition that it is not being received or provided on another basis. Asylum seekers have the right to request the appointment of a legal aid lawyer from the moment of the registration of their asylum claim, prior to this amendment legal aid was only available to asylum seekers at the appeal stage before the both judicial bodies. The National Bureau for Legal Aid (NBLA) however, which is an institution within the Ministry of Justice which manages legal aid funding, does not have any resources planned for legal aid to asylum seekers during status determination at first instance applications. The Bureau applied for funding for these activities from the European Refugee Fund (ERF) but the application was subsequently rejected by SAR in its capacity as ERF responsible authority on account of other private legal aid providers.
Legal aid, under ERF projects, provides for private legal advice and representation during eligibility interviews, as well as assistance to appeal negative decisions before the court. Interpretation costs are also covered under legal aid in order to facilitate communication between lawyers and asylum seekers. Again, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee found that the quality of legal services from private legal aid was poor and that during 2014/2015 the legal representation of asylum seekers was occasional rather than the commonplace. In 2015 legal aid given under ERF by a selected private legal aid provider, was only available at a reception center in Sofia, Ovcha kupel, and even there it was sporadic. The BHC also noted that during the first half of 2015 legal aid was provided in only 3% (6 out of 195 cases) of the monitored cases. The quality of the legal aid provided was also found to be highly questionable, quite formal and indifferent. While ERF funding for legal aid ended on June 30th 2015, a new AMIF source of funding is not expected to be available until at least the beginning of 2016 and as such asylum seekers have been left without any state provided legal aid at the first instances of status determination procedures since July 2015. Even for those who are only casually familiar with the recent refugee crisis in Europe and its scale this particular fact is extremely disconcerting.
The BHC also reported that in more than one-third of the court hearings, asylum seekers were not represented by a lawyer. In 44% of cases there was a private lawyer hired by an asylum seeker and legal aid lawyers were used in only 21% of monitored cases. With respect to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, procedural representation by a lawyer was present in 60% of cases, with 20% of these being provided by a legal aid lawyer. In 40% of cases, unaccompanied children did not have legal representation during court proceedings.
Description of what happens if they do not receive the refugee status
If an asylum application is rejected, applications can appeal the decision within fourteen days of being notified. According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) this period of time has proved sufficient for applicants to seek legal advice and properly prepare and submit their appeal. Further to this the State Agency for Refugees (SAR) is required to provide rejected applicants with information around where and by what method they can receive legal aid.
According to the BHC, Bulgarian law legally establishes two appeal instances in the regular procedure. This stands in contrast to appeal procedures for contesting decisions according to Dublin Regulations, “where first instance decisions are reviewed in only one appeal instance.” The appeal procedures themselves are exclusively judicial and the current legal provisions do not provide an administrative review of asylum determination decisions. Both variations of these appeals before the 1st and 2nd appeal courts have suspensive effect. The first appeal is held before the regional administrative court, where the respondent party (SAR) has its territorial unit and also where the person appealing the decision currently lives. The first appeal at the regional court involves a full review of the case, in terms of the facts and adherence to the law. Rejected asylum seekers are required to attend and are questioned in a public hearing as to the reasons why they applied for asylum in Bulgaria. The decisions are published and also served personally to the applicant.
If the first instance appeal decision is negative, the asylum seekers can bring their case to the second appeal court (the Supreme administrative court, 3rd Department) but only in the context of some issue of legal irregularities. Both appeal courts are required by law to issue their decisions within one month. This deadline is not followed strictly and regularly not respected. The average duration of an appeal procedure before the court at both judicial instances is approximately 15 months, in more complex cases it can last up to 18 months.
Due to these issues many asylum seekers who are rejected on their initial application seek to leave Bulgarian territory and enter a neighbouring country illegally.
Analysis of how the media depicts the refugees in Bulgaria
Is there national attention for refugees and refugee issues?
How are refugees presented by the media?
Is being a country of refuge presented in a negative, neutral or positive way?
The relationship between media and society is like the old story for the egg and the chicken – we cannot separate the two but there is no evidence showing which one comes first. Mass communication is a reflection of the culture, but simultaneously accused for shaping public opinion.
It is not a surprise how the bigger the refugee crisis grows, the greatest sensation media creates. News editors, commentators, journalists are busy with finding different angles in presenting the situation. There are certain tendencies in the way they achieve this task we can distinguish.
In Bulgaria there has always been presence of refugees. They come mainly from the Middle East and Africa and their number is not high, considering the size of the country, until 2013. That is the time when the first serious indication of possible overflow is obvious. As a result the “soil” becomes fertile for conceiving plots where the main characters are the new arrivals. All media in the country is now involved in capturing conflicts between the refugees and the locals, as well as the officials’ reaction.
In late 2013 the first question that stands in front of the Bulgarian government is whether the country it is ready financially to accommodate the refugees. In this period the Bulgarian politician Kristalina Georgieva is a European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection. She clearly states in the press that “Bulgaria has to get used to the thought it is going to have refugees for many years ahead”. She recognizes the difficulties the country is facing economically but appeals for solidarity and social integration: “If we look back in history we would notice that we had accepted refugees when we were far poorer and it was way more difficult around here. Solidarity is a two way street. We get help from Europe in order to compensate our backwardness to the rest of the countries. We are expected to help. We cannot refuse to take these people, we cannot return them to their country if the conditions there are threatening their life. Therefore even if we close our eyes to the moral side of the issue, there is a legal aspect we are not able to ignore. (…) It is better to put refugee children together with Bulgarian children instead of separate. Little children integrate easily. “
Not all politicians are so positive. For instance the leader of the Bulgarian party VMRO Krasimir Karakachanov and the former defense minister Boyko Noev have a rather radical view of the increasing numbers of foreign population. The two are guests in a famous Bulgarian talk show called “Flush the toilet” in October 2013. There both of them claim Bulgaria cannot handle any more migrants, “not because it doesn’t want but because it cannot physically”. Noev disapproves the president’s Plevneliev refugee supportive attitude by naming it irresponsible: “The main risk for our nation is we don’t know how many will come. This enormous number of people settling will create serious social conflict. The inhumane conditions in the refugee centers also contribute.” On his own Karakachanov adds: “We are not able to take more than 10 000 refugees. More than the half of those crossing the border every night, are not Syrian and are not avoiding the war – they are illegal.”
In November 2013 The Board of Electronic Media (SEM) announces their concern about what is broadcasted on TV and radio stations, but only after being advised by The Council of Europe. There is an amended declaration which promises sanctions to anyone who expresses their opinion in a way that affects someone’s personal dignity or ethnic and religious identity.
Meanwhile, every day the news turn the viewers into witnesses of constant confrontations among foreigners and bulgarians.
On 12 September 2013 an uprising of hundreds of citizens of Iraq and Syria is reported from the capital city of Bulgaria. Major TV channels and newspapers visit the hot spot in Ovcha Kupel district where a refugee camp is situated. The inhabitants are not actual refugees because they have been waiting for years to get the statute and still do not own it. They are protesting against the slow procedure in Bulgaria for integrating asylum seekers. Most of the interviewed people explain their sustentation provided by the government is 35 euro per month and they urgently need to get a job but they are not allowed to work legally yet. The direct requests of the foreigners in Ovcha Kupel are not the only thing catching the attention of the public. Many Bulgarians doubt the conscientiousness and the good will of the ones in the heart of the riot.
This is the first time when regards about the different religion and culture are openly expressed. The media, on its side, starts researching the refugee situation in a more global perspective, along with observing the capability of Bulgaria to deal with the quantity of arriving immigrants. Inevitably an atmosphere of fear becomes apparent. For example, a report of the Ministry of Interior about the migrants from November 2013 becomes especially famous common and parts of it are quoted left and right in the press. It claims: “The risks for the national security of Bulgaria are: -unfavorable reflection on institutions and the budget, – possibility of building of logistic links of international terrorist organizations (including supporting the mobility of European jihadists towards conflict zones), – display of social tension, – worsening of the criminogenic setting.”
Next months are marked by few more cases of infighting within the shelters and the police is frequently involved. In November a Syrian man dies in the camp “Voenna rampa” in Sofia. The refugees blame it on the bad conditions in the home and rage, while the local authorities deny and point out the cause of death is a heart attack. The media representatives who are at the place of the accident are refused a comment by the National Refugees Agency.
After a chain of similar occasions, the next two years the society separates distinctively. One part, calling itself “patriotic”, is strictly against the migration, proclaiming guarding the borders; and the other is more compassionate and accepting. Media is following the same moods.
Probably the most scandalous is the position of the extreme right formation ATAKA (in translation – ATTACK). This organization, with quote in the parliament, has always been seeking for outlets for its populist agitations, therefore it holds tight bounds to important media in Bulgaria. Nevertheless, it owns a TV channel and a newspaper that work only for propagandizing the ideas of the party. ATAKA is hostile towards migrants and spreads images of horror and fear about everybody who tries to cross the border. This tendency is growing enormously in order to create mass psychosis. The provocative leader of ATAKA Volen Siderov is cited generously and daily in all media supported by him. Here is a part of what he shares with the press: “We are going to be forced to run away from our own motherland, because there will be no more life for us. The so called Arab Spring caused a wave of aliens, which now we declare danger number one in Europe. If Europe does not put a barrier and begin to send them back, it will die. First will die Bulgaria as we are in the periphery and are most vulnerable.”
Fortunately, not everybody who is in the eye of the public is so adverse. A constant opinion is Bulgaria cares about the refugees but just cannot pay for them, especially considering their high birthrate. Offering help is seen as a metaphor of a raised open hand that is being cut off. Popular concern is the illegal business of the smugglers and also the fact that most of the migrants are not even interested in residing in the Balkans, they just choose to use the channel and proceed further to Western Europe.
Feeling as an ambassador of a more realistic point of view, the Bulgarian Anti Global Movement prints their own independent newspaper. Their publications usually focus on conspiracy theories. USA, Russia and Israel are pointed out as carrying the blame for the terrorism in the world. And this is how the organization characterizes the migrants: “The refugees, especially in Bulgaria, are a very suspicious mass of people and no one knows exactly what that is. If the places where they come from are investigated it would appear that this is a strangely homogenic mass while Syria is a multi ethnic country.”
If the Anti Globalists represent a medium spot on the scale of the social tolerance in the country, then the United Nations Refugee Agency in Bulgaria is the end that puts all resources into creating a positive picture of the asylum seekers. In 2014 the Agency starts a multimedia campaign which it describes as “aiming to encourage people to see refugees as they are – ordinary people who escaped from terrifying violence and prosecution”. The initiative covers two major national TV channels and has the ambition to spread over radio stations and the press. UN representative for Bulgaria Ronald Weil reveals: “We are trying to divert the debate from the topic about the number of the refugees and the presumed threats and let the balanced beliefs be heard in an open discussion.”
The UN example is followed by many publicists and more often on the news and in reports the refugees are shown as individuals. There is a tendency of searching for their personal stories and calling for their voices. The sympathy is not left uncriticized by others though. The Bulgarians have diverse attitudes and the opposing sides are exceptionally attractive for the media which organizes all sorts of polemics around the issue.
Two significant events shake the ground in Bulgaria before the end of 2015. First of them is a fatal incident at the border around Sredets, which ends with the murder of an Afghanistan citizen by a Bulgarian border policeman. The official version is that the victim is killed with a ricochet bullet by accident. Not everyone supports the police in this case and again the refugees dispute is the agenda.
One month later society is shocked by the attacks in Paris. Together with the compassion, some comments about immigrants from the Arab world being responsible for the shootings are made publicly on TV shows and in news.
Overall, Bulgarian media, as its people, is split in two directions. One half see only threat coming with the refugees, while the other believes it is possible for the new arrivals to be integrated. Still, there is no clear vision and unified standard about how this is going to be achieved.
“Може ли България да затвори границите си за сирийски бежанци?” в. Сега, 10.10.2013
“Кристалина Георгиева призовава за повече солидарност към бежанците” DarikNews.bg, 05.10.2013
“Среднощен бунт в бежански лагер в София” TV7.bg, 13.09.2013
“България в световните медии: несгодите на бежанците в България и в чужбина” аг. Фокус, 17.09.2015
“Атака иска затваряне на българската граница за сирийските бежанци” в. Атака, 20.09.2013
“Бойко Ноев: Плевнелиев, дай си къщата на бежанците!” Barekov, 13.10.2013
“Декларация на Съвета за Електронни Медии” СЕМ, 05.11.2015
“Атака стартита вот на недоверие заради пришълците” в. Атака, 09.11.2015
“Има ли опасност от тероризъм, джихадисти и конфликти с бежанци?” Mignews.info, 19.11.2013
“Бежанци или нелегални имигранти – длъжни ли сме да ги приемаме?” Alterinformation.wordpress.com
“Смърт на бежанец предизвика бунт в лагера във “Военна рампа”, DarikNews.bg, 21.11.2013
“Медийна кампания призовава българите да “погледнат бежанците с други очи”‘ UNCR centraleurope.org, 25.11.2014
“8 неща, които медиите (не) ви казват за Сирия” Alterinformation.wordpress.com, 20.05.2014
“Първи застрелян бежанец (Обзор)” в. 24 часа, 16.10.2015
“Най-четеното в “Дневник”: Атаката в Париж и българската “Златна ябълка”” в. Дневник, 22.11.2015
“Над 4000 джихадисти влезли в Европа като бежанци, чакат заповед за атаки” в. Пловдивски новини, 16.11. 2015
Follow-up on the refugee crisis
The legacy of both Communism and Ottoman rule (1393-1878) have had a profound effect on the dominant discourses surrounding national identity, and thus the discussions around policy and perception of minorities in the country with center right or often extreme right wing nationalist tendencies. The result is an accentuated and almost tangible fear or distrust of what is represented as ‘other’, something which has had a substantial impact on the country’s ethnic Turk and Roma minorities, as well as LGBT groups.
The recent refugee crisis, along with economic and political uncertainty in Europe has facilitate and accentuated nationalist and xenophobic tendencies. These tendencies are often ruthlessly exploited for political gain by those in power and in opposition. The media also tend to focus on the more sensationalist ideas around the supposed dangers of treating asylum seekers as fellow human being and the alleged impractical issue of cost in the light of Bulgaria’s comparatively poor economic standing in Europe. In many cases, refugees and asylum seekers are seen as dangerous terrorist ‘others’ or on some level are equated in the minds of many with the minority Roma population who are seen as criminal, lazy and not to be trusted. The basic humanity of the people fleeing war, death and misery is rarely discussed by either political or media outlets.
On the issue of refugee’s, this stance can be most obviously demonstrated by major political party GERB and current Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s erection of a new razor wire security fence along the country’s Southern border with Turkey. Indeed, the contentious move is not something which can be considered an issue for Bulgaria alone as it seems to reflect the larger ‘fortress Europe’ mentality or political discourse across the continent. The policy has been commended and supported by other likeminded political leaders in Europe such UK Prime Minister David Cameron. While visiting Bulgaria in December of 2015, Mr. Cameron noted that there were “real lessons to be learned” by fellow EU countries from Bulgaria’s approach (Dathan 2015).
The subjective perspective
While I was conducting my research on refugees in Bulgaria, one of the major issues that I encountered, was the lack adherence to human rights agreements and European guidelines on the procedures surrounding accepting asylum seekers or refugees. This pattern follows from a lack of empathy from politicians, media outlets and ordinary people. The Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees seems to suffer from the same administrative deficiencies and inadequacies found in many former communist states where xenophobia and distrust of applicants is often close to seemingly being institutionalised. The general attitude seems to be to discourage applications as much as possible and to creating an unwelcoming environment for those applying for asylum.
The country’s national legislation reflects this attitude and has been criticised by major human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International who have accused the Bulgarian government of essentially operating a policy of containment towards those seeking asylum status in the country. Further the actions of border police and civilian vigilante groups in preventing and in some cases hunting down legitimate asylum seekers to enter the country needs to be address and punished by the European Union. Public indifference or in some cases even support of these actions is something which should be addressed by a European Union focused information campaign which seeks to inform citizens of the very real difficulties and issues faced by those now trying to enter Europe’s borders. But humanising these individuals rather than describing them in terms of demographics, people are more likely to welcome those experiencing such extreme suffering.
Further another major issue faced by refugees who successfully make to Bulgaria is problems accessing education, housing, health care and other public services. In August, the Bulgarian government rejected a plan prepared by the State Agency for Refugees and the Ministry of Labour for the implementation of the National Integration Strategy adopted by parliament earlier in the year. According to Bulgaria’s State Agency for Refugees, in September, only 98 of 520 registered refugee children were enrolled in school due to the Schools Act which requires new pupils to pass an exam in the Bulgarian language and other subjects. A draft law on Asylum and Refugees, which was aimed at ensuring unhindered access to primary education for refugee children, was not adopted due to the fall of the government. The European needs to use political and economic pressure to ensure that Bulgaria meets these basic requirements for human decency and does its utmost to combat the issue of neglected and unaccompanied migrant children.
The most important issue and indeed one of the most recurring factors affecting the daily lives of refugees and asylum seekers which consistently presented itself during research was the inadequacies within Bulgaria’s legal framework in terms of the prevention of hate crimes and violent attacks. This issue has been highlighted several times in the past and European authorities need to take concrete steps to address this shameful problem.