The ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria has led to an inundation of refugees in Syria’s neighboring and not-so-neighboring countries. Bulgaria, for instance, has processed over 9,000 asylum applications since January 1, 2013. The country with the lowest GDP in the European Union (EU), Bulgaria has nevertheless emerged as a leading destination for Syrian refugees in Europe: among European countries, its Syrian refugee population is exceeded only by Sweden, Germany, and Italy.
Bulgaria faces significant social and economic challenges. Its National Electric Company and its National Health Insurance Fund are on the brink of bankruptcy, and violent xenophobic protests have occurred in recent years.
By all accounts, the conditions of refugees in Bulgaria–from Syria and elsewhere–are punishing, if not dire. In one camp, Haaretz reports, there are no beds, only thick wooden boards scattered across the floors, and the indoor temperatures routinely dropped below zero. “Whatever the horrors of war they left behind,” a PBS correspondent remarked grimly last December, “nothing prepared these Syrians for a European welcome as warm as this.”
In January, UNHCR recommended the halting of transfer of refugees to Bulgaria under the Dublin II Regulation, an EU law that assigns asylum applications to EU member states on the basis of family ties and other criteria. UNHCR’s assessment at the time concluded that asylum-seekers in Bulgaria routinely faced arbitrary detention, lacked access to basic services (such as food and healthcare), and were denied fair and consistent asylum procedures.
Three months later, after undertaking a reevaluation of the country’s asylum situation, UNHCR amended its position, citing “numerous improvements that have been made to reception conditions and the asylum procedure in Bulgaria since the beginning of the year.” Although “there may be reasons precluding transfers under Dublin for certain groups or individuals”–such as asylum-seeking children or refugees in need of health care–these remaining deficiencies, the UNHCR report concluded, no longer justified a general suspension of Dublin transfers to Bulgaria.
UNHCR’s updated report on the situation of refugees in Bulgaria did not consider at length “push-backs” or the practice of preventing asylum-seekers from entering a receiving country in contravention of international law. (Some non-entrée measures, such as the collective rejection of a group of people without consideration of each person’s individual circumstances, are explicitly prohibited under EU law.)
Accounts of push-backs at the Bulgarian border have been rife and widespread. “Violence against refugees involving beatings, humiliation, and disregard of human dignity continuously takes place at the border, in detention camps, and on the streets throughout [Bulgaria],” Border Monitoring Bulgaria (BMB) reported back in April.
Later that month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a comprehensive report on the conditions of Bulgaria’s borders and migrant detention centers. The report, “Containment Plan: Bulgaria’s Pushbacks and Detention of Syrian and Other Asylum Seekers and Migrants,” catalogued summary expulsions and rejections of asylum-seekers, physical abuse by Bulgarian police (including beatings and the use of electric shocks), and the confiscation of personal possessions by border guards, culminating in the unflinching conclusion: “At almost every stage of their efforts to seek refuge in Bulgaria, [asylum-seekers] have faced physical and bureaucratic barriers, violent abuse, and hardship.”
The accounts of push-backs at the Bulgarian border should not be viewed in isolation: reports of illegal non-entrée measures have been documented across southern and eastern Europe, from Spain and Italy to Greece and Ukraine. This past April, Amnesty International published “Greece: Frontier of Hope and Fear: Migrants and Refugees Pushed Back at Europe’s Border,” a report highlighting the expulsion of migrants and asylum-seekers arriving either in the Aegean Sea or at the land border between Greece and Turkey.
After interviewing 67 asylum-seekers (mostly Syrian refugees), the report found that more than half had experienced illegal push-backs at least once, with some incidents betraying “a complete disregard for the safety of migrants and refugees” on the part of government officials–including the abandonment of asylum-seekers at sea “in unseaworthy vessels.”
Citing the widespread mistreatment of refugees and asylum-seekers by Bulgarian and Greek officials, both HRW and Amnesty International recommended that the EU halt the transfer of asylum-seekers to both Bulgaria and Greece under the Dublin II Regulation.
The accounts of non-entrée measures by officials in Greece, Bulgaria, and elsewhere, as well as other abuses against asylum-seekers documented by news and human rights organizations, merit a solemn and diligent response from the national governments of both Greece and Bulgaria, including the tightening of oversight of state actions taken at national borders.