Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, Population

BULGARIA: Refuge Can Get Worse Than Rejection

Claudia Ciobanu

BUCHAREST, Jul 23 2010 (IPS) - A protest to close down Busmantsi, a detention centre for undocumented migrants in Sofia, highlighted the obstacles faced by refugees and asylum- seekers in Bulgaria.

The protest last month, which brought together 60-70 people, had as a symbolic aim the closing down of the Busmantsi Detention Centre for Undocumented Migrants in capital Sofia. It also asked for changes in the Law for Foreigners in the Republic of Bulgaria to regularise illegal migrants and thus give them access to healthcare, education and jobs.

According to one of the participants, 26-year-old Vassil, the protesters further called for legal guarantees against arbitrary detention and legal remedies for unnecessarily long detention; access to legal counsel and adequate health and education services for those inside Busmantsi; free access to high school education for foreigners, regardless of their legal status; and access to social security and health services for all legally employed foreigners and for all children, regardless of immigration status.

The Busmantsi centre currently hosts up to 100 people, mostly undocumented new entrants caught at the border and sent there.

Until the adoption of the European Returns Directive at the end of 2008 — which limits detention to six months (upped to 18 in exceptional cases), Bulgarian legislation did not set a maximum limit to the detention of migrants. People could find themselves detained for years.

Following the implementation of the Directive in May 2009, many people who had been detained for over 18 months were released from Busmantsi. But problems persist.

According to Bulgarian pro-migrant NGOs, the maximum 18-month term set by the Directive, which should only be applied in exceptional cases, has become the norm in Bulgaria.

Additionally, according to Kristina Gologanova from the Sofia NGO Assistance Centre for Torture Survivors (ACET), several categories of people are still being arbitrarily detained at Busmantsi.

One group is new entrants to the country applying for protection – their status should be considered immediately by the State Agency for Refugees but insufficient administrative capacity there makes people stay at Busmantsi for months, in an indeterminate status.

Also stuck in limbo at Busmantsi are many Afghans with no national documentation. Refused protection in Bulgaria, they cannot be returned home because of the lack of documents.

Problematic is also the case of those considered “threats to national security”. According to Gologanova, the decisions over who constitutes a threat are made in a non-transparent way by the State Agency for National Security and, in some cases, people who have already been granted humanitarian status find themselves imprisoned in Busmantsi.

The director of Busmantsi says efforts are made to give the best care to those detained, but suggests life in the centre might be better than on the outside. “We cannot just let people go if they do not have proper documentation,” Yotko Andreev told IPS. “It means letting them live on the street. Few people ask themselves what the alternative for these people is if they are not in Busmantsi.”

Life after release from Busmantsi is tough for both people with regulated status and for those continuing to be illegal. Unregulated migrants released at the end of the maximum detention term now need to check in daily with the local authorities and thus live their lives under suspicion.

Even for people with refugee and humanitarian status, the lack of integration strategies and social attitudes are major obstacles. Occasional episodes of intimidation and even hate crimes against foreigners have been reported. Jobs are hard to find and children wanting to attend school must pass exams in Bulgarian, which postpones or denies education.

“Bulgaria is not very open to these groups of people,” Kristina Gologanova told IPS. “Many say we do not have money even for ourselves, how can we receive people from other countries? People can even think migrants are terrorists, drug addicts or human traffickers.

“Even those people who do get refugee or humanitarian status, within one or two years, they leave the country,” says Gologanova. “And it is not only for economic reasons. They do receive support from their own communities but there are no real programmes for integration sustained by the Bulgarian state.”

Bulgaria has received an increasing number of applications for asylum and refugee status since the early 1990s. Together with Romania, the country forms the EU’s newest border, being on the route from the Middle East and Asia into Europe.

However, according to UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) data, acceptance rates have dropped significantly over the last years, after reaching a peak in 2001-2002 (most refugees in Bulgaria come from Afghanistan).

Bulgaria’s acceptance rates dropped from a high of 49 percent in 2001 to 9.4 percent in 2005. In 2009, UNHCR warned that Bulgaria’s acceptance rates, particularly for Iraqis (second largest group of refugees and asylum-seekers), are falling dangerously low.

The protest to close down Busmantsi was followed up by public actions against racism taking place in Sofia throughout June and July. The mobilisation came in response to an increasing number of far-right attacks targeting foreigners and pro-migrant activists.

“With nationalism a state-sponsored doctrine rife in history books and some politicians bent on using ethnic tensions to divert the public eye from their failings, public awareness of the horrors committed in the past and the democratic instinct of active citizens remain the only barriers to hatred and xenophobia,” Vassil told IPS.

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags

christian romantic suspense authors