Bulgaria under fire for ill-treatment of asylum-seekers

From left to right: Chloé Gerbert Cahuzac , Clément Père, Ska Keller, Olfa Ouled. [Georgi Gotev]

French lawyers will file a complaint against Bulgaria and ask the European Commission to start an infringement procedure for inhumane treatment of asylum seekers by the country’s authorities, the Green/EFA group announced on Tuesday (26 June).

In the presence of the Green/EFA group co-chair Ska Keller, the lawyers presented a 20-page report based on a shocking testimony by Afghan asylum-seekers and answered reporters’ questions.

Bulgaria, the poorest EU country, faced the arrival of some 60,000 asylum seekers in 2015-2016, but most of them rapidly left after finding a very hostile environment. The EU-Turkey deal of March 2016 drastically reduced the number of new arrivals.

Broad Bulgarian support for vigilantes 'arresting' refugees

An amateur video published on social media yesterday (11 April), showing the arrest of asylum seekers by vigilantes, sparked debates at political level and among the wider public about the role of so-called “patriots” in discouraging refugees from crossing through Bulgaria.

At the recent mini-summit on migration, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said his country would not agree to take back those asylum-seekers who would be sent back from wealthier EU countries because, in his words, the time for doing so had elapsed.

Chloé Gerbert Cahuzac, representing the 14 Afghans who are currently asylum seekers in France, said they were in a state of anxiety aid groups had “never seen before”.

She quoted them as repeating the same sentence: “We prefer to go back to Kabul than to Sofia. In Afghanistan, people kill you right away with one bullet, in Bulgaria they let you die slowly”.

She explained that under the current Dublin asylum system, the claimants risk being returned to Bulgaria, where they first registered as refugees. In France, in the last months, some administrative courts have annulled Dublin transfers to Bulgaria, recognising the deficiencies of the Bulgarian system and taking into account reports and evidence of ill-treatment suffered by asylum seekers.

But some other courts in France validate the transfers since the EU hasn’t addressed the issue.

According to the Dublin system, the country in which the asylum seeker first applies for asylum is responsible for either accepting or rejecting the claim, and the seeker may not restart the process in another jurisdiction.

The current system is putting too much pressure on ‘frontline countries’ such as Greece or Italy. The upcoming summit was expected to reform the Dublin system but draft conclusions reveal that there is no consensus for doing that.

The European Commission and the European Court of justice are the only institutions that can clearly state there are systemic deficiencies in the Bulgarian asylum system, thus stopping transfers to Bulgaria.

Gerbert Cahuzac quoted from one of the asylum seekers (their names are withheld) who said he was part of a group of 21 people who were stopped by the police and beaten, all their belongings were taken and dogs were set on them. As he had been there with his children, he said the kids never wanted to see dogs again.

The group was then taken to a house where they were kept without food until the refugees gave money to the police. The man said the Taliban in Afghanistan had a  different tactic – instead of killing their enemies, they would cut their legs – but he found even that preferable.

“He was seriously thinking of returning to Afghanistan to have his legs cut, instead of going back to Sofia, I think it is quite telling,” Cahuzac said. She quoted another Afghan asylum seeker who said he had lost his entire family in Afghanistan, but still his nightmares were about Bulgaria. “It is as if Bulgaria had erased everything they had lived before,” she said.

Cahuzac also said many French judges did not understand why Afghan refugees thought their life would be at risk in Bulgaria.

“If they would really listen, I think they should cancel the Dublin transfers, by recognising the deficiencies of the Bulgarian asylum system”, she said, deploring that “right now, the statement of a refugee has no value”.

She also related reports about asylum-seekers being beaten in Busmantsi, a detention centre near Sofia. She said there were cameras, bought with EU money, everywhere at Busmantsi but not in the bathrooms, where asylum-seekers said they were beaten.

French lawyer at the Paris Bar, Clément Père, one the authors of the report, said the request is first of all for the Commission “to investigate the serious violation of European standards by the Bulgarian state”.

He said the Bulgarian criminal law considers the illegal entry and exit through its borders as a crime, which in his words violates the principles of international law of non-criminalisation of illegal cross-border movement.

Secondly, he said the Bulgarian state was failing to respect the principle of individual examination of asylum applications, which is also enshrined in EU legislation, by denying en masse asylum to nationals of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Shri Lanka. In his words, Afghans should be considered as manifestly eligible to apply for asylum.

This practice, he said, was denounced by the director for migration and protection in the European Commission, in a letter to the Bulgarian state agency for refugees from 6 July 2017. Based on the Eurostat data for 2017, the rate of granted international protection to Afghan nationals in Bulgaria was only 1.5%, meaning that out of 1,287 there were 22 positive decisions. In France, the figure was 90% for Afghans, he said.

The modus operandi in Bulgaria of sending asylum seekers directly to detention centres after crossing the border has been denounced by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on migration and refugees of the Council of Europe, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Père said.

He added the UN Committee against Torture urged Bulgaria in its last report to prevent the ill-treatment of asylum-seekers by law-enforcement officials and to provide appropriate training for how to deal with migrants and other vulnerable persons.

‘Commission perfectly aware’

French lawyer Olfa Ouled, the other author of the report, said the Commission was perfectly aware of what was happening in Bulgaria but chose not to act.

“We will not hesitate to address the issue to the UN Committee against torture, if we see that [other options] are not working”, she said.

EURACTIV asked Ska Keller to comment on the timing of this communication, just ahead of the 28-29 June EU summit when migration is expected to top the agenda. The summit is also the final event for the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU.

Keller said the Bulgarian Presidency was a lot about trying to create a good impression by holding big summits “but we don’t see a lot of stories about what is actually happening in Bulgaria, neither about the refugees nor about the environment”.

She said a delegation of the European Parliament’s LIBE Committee visited the Bulgarian government some time ago, and the hosts tried to show a high degree of cooperation with the Turkish border guards, which in fact amounted to push-backs of asylum-seekers, prohibited by EU law.

“In terms of what is happening in Bulgaria, we are really not happy”, Keller said, adding that she was going to raise the issue when the Bulgarian Prime Minister came to debrief the Parliament about the Presidency next week.

Keller also said that, if materialised, recent ideas about setting “disembarkation platforms” in Africa would possibly look like the horror of the Bulgarian asylum system.

“If they [EU leaders] are going to agree on something [at the 28-29 June summit], it will be something horrible”, she said.

Asked to comment, Commission spokesperson Natasha Bertaud said the EU executive was not aware of ill-treatment of asylum seekers in Bulgaria.

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